AUGUSTA — Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, former executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust and a well-known supporter of land conservation, is in a seemingly tough spot these days.

LaBonte, who left the land trust in 2014 to become the director of Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, is now responsible for scrutinizing the Land for Maine’s Future program and defending LePage’s decision to withhold more than $6.5 million in voter-approved state borrowing that was meant to help conserve public land around the state.

Some in the conservation community took that to mean LaBonte is now against land conservation.

Not so, LaBonte said Wednesday afternoon. He said he proposed the review to LePage and has suggested his expertise in land conservation projects would be an advantage, compared to other staff who may have no understanding of how LMF and conservation projects work.

“As I’ve said to my (land conservation) colleagues, ‘Wouldn’t you prefer to have somebody who has worked in this field and was a colleague in your efforts?'” LaBonte said.

He said the review has been characterized as an “investigation” by LePage but it isn’t necessarily a search for wrongdoing. LaBonte said he would seek to inventory all LMF projects since the start of the program, looking toward possible policy changes that would help ensure funds were being spent efficiently and fairly.

Deputy State Treasurer Kristi Carlow confirmed that the $6.5 million bond, approved by voters in 2010, will expire in November, and the state issues bonds or offers a bond sale only once each year in June.

“By the time the next bond issue rolls around in June, they will have officially expired,” Carlow said. “We have to go through an entire disclosure update, which results in an official statement for the state of Maine. That takes a few months. It hasn’t been a past practice to go to the market to issue bonds more than once a year.”

Under current law, the Legislature by a two-thirds vote and voters at the polls must approve large state borrowing, known as bonding, but the law leaves the final decision of when to take on that debt to the governor.

Both LaBonte and LePage’s communications staff have said the Legislature could extend the expiration date on the bonds, if it chooses to do so, but with State House leaders pushing to finish their work for 2015 on Thursday, it appeared unlikely they would do that.

LePage said Wednesday he intended to introduce a bill that would extend the life of the bonds until November 2016.

“I’ve told the Legislature from day one that I’m not against Land for Maine’s Future bonds,” LePage told the Bangor Daily News. “I’m against inequality between the rich and the poor when it comes to legislation. LMF bonds go primarily to people who are wealthy, but they’re paid for by the Maine taxpayers.”

LaBonte said some people who are angry with LePage were ignoring more than $5.8 million in LMF projects that had been approved since LePage took office in 2010.

Some were Androscoggin Land Trust projects, including a Verso mill project in Jay and the Rancourt Preserve along the Androscoggin River in Lewiston, funded during LaBonte’s tenure at the land trust.

One of the very first LMF projects funded after the program was created in 1987 was the state’s effort to buy some 2,300 acres of river property in Turner that would eventually become the Androscoggin Riverlands State Park.

LaBonte was critical of LePage in 2012 for refusing to issue LMF bonds. At that time, an Androscoggin Land Trust project that involved Verso paper mill land in Canton and Jay was set to close, but without LMF funding it would be delayed.

LaBonte noted at the time that LMF project rules would require a new appraisal on the 1,300-acre parcel at an additional cost of $30,000 if closing on the deal were delayed more than a year.

“If there was an intent not to allow bonds to be issued, the state should never have initiated the grant process or gone through the allocation in 2011,” LaBonte told the Bangor Daily News at the time.

The Legislature is expected to vote Thursday on a LePage veto of a bill that strips the governor of the ability to withhold the bonds once they are approved by voters.

While the bill received two-thirds support on passage in both the House and the Senate, its final disposition remained unclear Wednesday. Some lawmakers, especially members of the House Republican caucus, could side with LePage and may vote to sustain his veto.

LePage has argued that the Legislature is attempting to usurp power from his office.

But lawmakers who support the change say LePage has usurped the will of Maine voters by failing to issue the bonds they’ve approved at the polls in a timely manner, and now important land conservation projects that affect public access for recreation and the economy are in peril.

“The best bet at this point is for folks to join together and actually support the veto override,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “At this point in time, we need to take away the leverage the governor has with the LMF bonds so that he stops using them politically,”

LePage has withheld authorizing the LMF bond because he wants the Legislature to first allow more timber harvesting on public land to pay for a low-income heating efficiency program.

Lawmakers, LePage and land conservation groups have been locked in a standoff over the issue for more than three years. The groups say projects in the works will be lost without state funding to support them.

In all, LePage has refused to release about $11.5 million in Land for Maine’s Future conservation bonds that Mainers approved in multiple referendums since 2010.

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