Governor Paul LePage is withholding operating funds from the Land for Maine’s Future Program, strangling this important conservation program with more than 40 projects waiting for final funding. As one LMF Board member told me, “It just keeps getting worse.”
The LMF Board now is struggling to get a quorum of members to meetings so decisions can be made. Quite clearly, there is a growing level of dissatisfaction among all LMF Board members. And remember, all of the public members were appointed by Governor LePage and three are members of LePage’s Cabinet. The LMF Board meets tomorrow so we’ll see who shows up.
In addition to his new directive, the Governor has been withholding more than $11 million that would allow 41 outstanding conservation projects to be completed – even though he promised to fund these projects as part of a deal to pay off state debts to Maine hospitals in 2013, and despite the fact that 60 percent of Maine voters approved the bonds in 2010 and 2012.
The withholding of operating funds is a new step in the Governor’s effort to use (misuse) this popular conservation program as leverage to force the legislature to remove funds from the Bureau of Public Lands and use the bond money to purchase wood and wood stoves for needy Mainers. A new legislatively-organized commission tackled that issue last week and I will report on that meeting in a future column.
The Governor’s latest move forbids the LMF Board and staff from spending any of its existing $2 million of bond money on legal work on present and future projects. As one Commissioner reported, “This would appear to shut the process down in terms of any due diligence required to complete applications currently in the pipeline.” A letter informing the leaders of projects on the current list of this new restriction went out last week.
The Governor’s refusal to sell LMF bonds led to a major battle at the legislature, but the issue remains unresolved and will be revisited when the legislature convenes in January.
While we wait for that to happen, the Governor’s latest move is very significant. I’ve been monitoring the status of some of the most valuable projects and worry that some will be lost. A few of the projects are seeking alternative funding to make up for the loss of the promised funding from the Land for Maine’s Future, but not all are able to do that. One key project is seeking a bridge loan from a bank, hoping that will allow the completion of the project while a resolution of the issue at the State House is being debated and decided.
The recommendations of the Commission to Study the Public Reserved Lands Management Fund may play an important role in this. Those recommendations are due by December 5, 2015.
The LMF Board and staff are finishing up a 50-page special report, ordered up by the Governor, on all aspects of the program, and that report will be reviewed by the board at tomorrow’s meeting. If a quorum is present, the report may be approved and sent on to the Governor.