AUGUSTA — A dispute between Gov. Paul LePage and a coalition of land conservation groups and lawmakers over funding for the state’s Land for Maine’s Future program is unlikely to end anytime soon.

LePage has refused to issue voter-approved funds for the program until the Legislature allows some of the revenue from timber harvested on public lands to be filtered to a low-income heating program.

The nearly two-year-old standoff has thrown some $11 million and more than 30 land conservation projects into jeopardy, driven a political wedge into the LMF’s board of directors and sent local conservation groups scrambling to secure temporary funds for deals that were in the works prior to the dispute.

At the heart of the controversy is Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, the director of LePage’s Office of Policy Management. LaBonte, also the former executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, has been tasked by LePage to review the LMF program and make recommendations on improving it.

LePage also has been accused of keeping his appointees to LMF’s governing board from attending official meetings and keeping the board’s remaining members from taking any official action for lack of a quorum. His staff has denied those accusations.

Early this week, several LePage appointees failed to show up at a board meeting, causing some of the remaining board members to express frustration with LePage’s interference and their inability to conduct business without a quorum.


At that meeting, LaBonte delivered the first draft of his report, mainly a factual background on the program, noting the final version would be delivered in November.

LaBonte is being criticized by conservation advocates and some lawmakers who say it’s hypocritical of him to be involved in LePage’s attempt to dismantle a conservation program from which the Androscoggin Land Trust benefited.

“I think (LaBonte) is going to have to live with the consequences of his actions,” said David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which is among a number of groups urging LePage to release the funding for conservation projects.

Trahan said LaBonte was well-respected in his former role as a land trust director for the work he did to help protect and preserve for public use many acres in the Androscoggin River watershed.

“I think in the conservation community, people are looking at him going, ‘Why in the world are you doing this?'” Trahan said.  “People are just shocked he’s taken it to that political level.”

LaBonte, who was traveling Friday, exchanged several messages with the Sun Journal via Facebook saying he would be happy to discuss the issue on Monday. He said he had previously tried to discuss the matter with Trahan and still hoped to meet with him in the days ahead.


Thomas Abello, the senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy in Maine, which is part of the Land For Maine’s Future Coalition, a group trying to pressure LePage into releasing the funding, said the conservation community is also concerned with the politicization of the program, which had always stood above the partisan fray.

“It has been nonpartisan; it has been supported throughout the state,” Abello said. “Six times Maine voters have said yes to LMF bonds on the ballot. It gets support in all 16 counties and 80 percent of Maine towns have said yes.”

The dispute, along with the delayed action on conservation projects, is slowly undermining confidence in the program of landowners who may have been considering a conservation option, Abello said.

“If you think about it, it throws predictability out the window,” Abello said.  “I’m not aware of any landowner, at this point, walking away, but in the future you know that certainly could be the case. It would be difficult for a landowner to enter into any agreement with all this uncertainty about whether or not there will be funding, and if there is funding, whether or not it will be held up.”

Quiet in the entire debate has been former governor, and now U.S. senator, Angus King, I-Maine. King, prior to becoming governor, was a champion of the creation of the LMF program, and during his time as governor, he oversaw the issuance of more than $50 million in conservation projects around the state, all funded in part with state bonds approved by voters.

Since leaving the Blaine House, King has been hesitant to comment on state politics, and a request to his office for comment on the current dispute over the program was declined.


But King has been a strong advocate of the federal reauthorization of Land and Water Conservation Act funding, which is often a source of matching money for LMF projects.

Earlier this week, King, along with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the state’s 2nd District U.S. congressman, Bruce Poliquin, also a Republican, issued a joint statement expressing their support for reauthorizing federal conservation funding that is about to expire.

On average, LMF funds leverage federal matching funds at a 1-3 rate, according to Jeff Roman, director of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, another of the primary members of the Land for Maine’s Future Coalition.

Romano said that while he would welcome a show of support from Maine’s congressional delegation, what he most hopes for is support in the state Legislature, especially from Republicans in the House of Representatives who have previously aligned with LePage.

Among them is House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who has voiced strong opposition to the Legislature usurping any of the governor’s executive powers. Attempts to contact Fredette for comment on Friday were unsuccessful.

Possible resolution to the LMF standoff may not come until January when the Legislature reconvenes for the second half of the 127th lawmaking session. In limbo is an amended bill that would strip the governor of authority to hold up the LMF bond funding that’s been approved by voters.


That amended measure, authored by House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is sitting on LePage’s desk. He will have three days after the Legislature reconvenes in January to veto the measure.

McCabe hopes six Republican lawmakers who previously changed their votes to support LePage on the issue will change their minds again and help Democrats override any potential veto of that legislation, McCabe said.

But the Legislature may also seize control of LMF board appointments, worried that LePage won’t fill the posts as they expire, leaving the program to implode, McCabe said.

“Right now, the governor has decided not to send his Cabinet-level positions, his commissioners, to meetings. He is also not filling a vacancy on the LMF board,” McCabe said. “He’s going to just let them flounder.”

LePage used a similar tactic to dismantle the state’s Board of Corrections over a dispute about who should control the finances and operations of Maine’s 15 county jails.

“The fact is that the governor hasn’t provided any actual suggestions for improvement to this program or provided anything that we can actually take action on or have a discussion on,” McCabe said. “It’s just at every turn he’s trying to pull the rug out from under the LMF program.”


McCabe, like Trahan, said LaBonte’s role in the process remains puzzling. 

While LaBonte has been presenting information to the LMF board meetings, McCabe said it’s often just repeating information previously prepared by the LMF staff.

“It’s not clear what his role is and what he is actually providing because he’s not providing clear guidance as far as it relates to the governor’s office,” McCabe said.

“He doesn’t come to the meetings with a clear message and I don’t even think he can answer on behalf of the governor. At this point in time, it seems like the goal of the administration is to do everything they can to destroy this program.”

Peter Steele, a LePage spokesman, declined comment Friday but released copies of letters LePage has written to a local official in Cumberland and to the president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

In one, LePage criticizes the land trust for not disclosing the millions of dollars it has in reserves and in the other he defends the vote of state Rep. Mike Timmons, R-Cumberland. Timmons was one of the six Republicans to switch his vote on the issue to support LePage.


“This was not about one project in Cumberland or North Yarmouth,” LePage wrote to Cumberland’s Town Council Chairman Peter Bingham Sr. “It was about rewarding rich organizations with wealthy donors and big corporate benefactors while poor and low-income Mainers were struggling to stay warm in their homes during long, cold winters.”

“I think in the conservation community people are looking at him going, ‘Why in the world are you doing this?’ People are just shocked he’s taken it to that political level.”  – David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, speaking on Jonathan LaBonte’s role in the Land for Maine’s Future controversy

“This was not about one project in Cumberland or North Yarmouth. It was about rewarding rich organizations with wealthy donors and big corporate benefactors while poor and low-income Mainers were struggling to stay warm in their homes during long, cold winters,”  – Gov. Paul LePage in a letter to Cumberland Town Council Chairman Peter Bingham Sr.


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