Gov. LePage recently announced that he will belatedly sign off on multiple voter approved bond issues for the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program, but he remains an outspoken critic of the program. At a December 17 Waterville “town hall” meeting, the governor said that he “hates” the LMF program and that the recent bond release does not indicate he has “changed his mind.” In the past week, LePage has criticized the program repeatedly, calling it “a rip off”, and a benefit only to “rich Mainers, wealthy landowners and well-funded conservation organizations.” Despite the governor’s claims, the data show that LMF and other conservation programs provide a significant return on investment for all Mainers.
Gov. LePage’s opposition to the program also stands in stark contrast to the opinions of voters, who have not only repeatedly voted to authorize LMF bonds, but who, in a recent poll, supported the release of the bonds 74%-16%. This may be because, contrary to the Governor’s opinion, a wide variety of Mainers and visitors highly value Maine’s conserved lands.
Several studies in recent years have substantiated the return on investment from the LMF program. The preservation of the environment itself yields a return of $11 over ten years for every bond dollar spent. Other benefits, including the creation of direct jobs in tourism and resource harvesting, produce an average return of $15 in other benefits over the same period. Finally, the program leverages bonds to secure extra federal and local matching funds ($3 for every $1 borrowed by the state).
Gov. LePage’s key concern appears to be the removal of conserved land from the property tax rolls. , In fact, land conservation actually increases overall property values, offsetting some of this loss to town budgets.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently affirmed the value of the property tax exemption for lands held in the public trust, the issue which vexes Gov. LePage so much. In Frances Small Land Trust vs. Town of Limington (2014), the Court noted:
“[Even] casual and limited group recreational and relaxation activities provide something that government would otherwise provide, through the government system of parks, public lands, and recreational facilities…In addition to the ecological and environmental benefit of land preservation there are numerous physical, psychological and, for some, even spiritual benefits to having access to undeveloped land.”
The benefits of conserving Maine’s environment – economic and otherwise – are clear, as is widespread public support for Land for Maine’s Future. As legislators prepare to reauthorize expired LMF bonds that wereapproved by voters in 2010, they must overcome Governor LePage’ opposition and honor the will of Maine’s voters. In doing so, they will ensure the continuation of one of the state’s most popular and successful bond programs.