By Christopher Cousins, Bangor Daily News
AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has reversed his earlier stance and will allow the Land for Maine’s Future program to use $2.2 million in cash it has on hand to fund conservation projects.
However, LePage will continue to block the issuance of $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds until the Legislature approves his proposal to use proceeds from timber harvesting on state-owned lands to fund a heating system conversion program for low-income Mainers, according to LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
Bennett wrote in response to emailed questions that the $2.2 million should be sufficient to fund a half-dozen or more conservation projects. Officials with the Land for Maine’s Future program, who were involved in a board meeting Tuesday afternoon, did not immediately respond to questions from the Bangor Daily News.
In September, LePage announced that in addition to blocking the unsold bonds, he would not authorize the program to use more than $2.2 million it has on hand from previously sold bonds. That move, plus the fact that the Land for Maine’s Future board of directors has not been able to muster a quorum for months, essentially stopped the program from operating at all.
Meanwhile, LePage’s proposal to use timber harvesting revenue — and the stewardship of Maine’s public forests in general — is under review by a group formed by the Legislature earlier this year called the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund. At the core of the commission’s activities is determining whether using revenue from the fund for purposes other than supporting Maine’s public lands is legal or constitutional.
In a letter to the commission this week, Attorney General Janet Mills wrote that such a proposal would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster because of provisions that call for timber harvesting revenues to be directed to maintaining public lands and acquiring new acreage.
“While the purchase of heating equipment for low-income rural families is a laudable goal, as is public assistance for food, shelter and health care, it is not easy to draw a connection between these types of uses and the preservation of the Public Reserved Lands,” wrote Mills. “Under the very limited language of the  Opinion of the Justices, this proposed use would likely meet great skepticism from the [Maine Supreme Judicial] Court.”
Bennett in a written statement to the BDN stated that Mills “did not say and cannot say” that the funds could not be used for the heating program and that prohibiting the use of these funds for the program “flies in the face of one of the essential roles of government.”
“The governor and many others believe it is better to spend this money to help the needy than to simply let the funds sit in this account,” wrote Bennett. “If someone wants to stand on principle rather than help Mainers who are struggling to stay warm during the winter, let them challenge this in court.”
This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.