New governor puts Maine back on path for land conservation bonds

Bonds

Maine Gov. Janet Mills is backing bonds for a state conservation initiative that her predecessor, conservative firebrand Paul LePage, delayed for the past four years.

The Democratic governor is pushing legislative support on a $95 million bond package for land conservation efforts and state park improvements. The borrowing proposal would designate $75 million toward Land for Maine Future, a state conservation program founded in 1987 that was under attack by Republican LePage.

Baxter State Park is among the Maine natural resource areas that could see facility improvements through a proposed $95 million bond package.

“I was surprised to learn that Maine is not as ahead of the curve as I thought we were in terms of conserving lands,” Mills said during a March 5 press conference with supporters of the bond legislation. “We’ve got so much of it to do.”

LePage fought against borrowing plans for the LAF program after winning reelection in November 2014, arguing that taking hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of conservation land off the tax rolls was a strain on the state’s economy. He spent much of 2015 holding up $11.5 million of voter-approved land conservation bonds as part of a dispute with lawmakers over his attempts at diverting timber-harvesting revenues to a home heating assistance program.

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“We want to make sure that these natural resources are available, not only for people’s enjoyment, but quite literally for people’s profit, so that we can continue to have a really robust resource-based economy in Maine and bring the next generation into those profitable enterprises,” said State Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who sponsored the bond measure.

The borrowing proposal has more than 100 co-sponsors, who joined with Senator Breen and Governor Mills at the March 5 press conference. Lawmakers are considering $1.5 billion of possible bond measures early this year to put on the ballot for voter approval this November. The Democrats control all three branches of Maine government after the election of Mills last November, with the party also seizing control of the state senate from the Republicans.

Debt service proposed in Governor Mills’ two-year budget plan last month allows for $300 million of borrowing on top of $264 million that is currently authorized but unissued, according to Maine State Treasurer Henry Beck. On top of $200 million budgeted, the Maine Department of Transportation needs $100 million of borrowing that is also in the proposal to address a shortfall in road and bridge maintenance projects.

Maine voters approved $339 million of borrowing proposals in 2017 and 2018 during the last two years of LePage’s time in office. The Pine Tree State’s general obligation bonds are rated Aa2 by Moody’s and AA by S&P Global Ratings.

The $95 million bond plan derived recommendations from the Land Conservation Task Force, which issued a report late last year highlight that the last LMF borrowing approved in 2012 has been largely spent or committed. The group also highlighted how the last time a bond for state park capital improvements appeared on the ballot was in 2010 and there is a roughly $50 million backlog of basic infrastructure needs at the facilities.

“There is significant pent up demand for investments through general obligations bonds,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, who was among 20 task force members to organize the report. “Recapitalizing existing programs such as Land for Maine’s Future makes good sense. Our state parks have not seen significant capital investment in many years and are in need of basic improvements to meet customer demand.”

The Land Conservation Task Force noted that in the six years of no bond issues committed for LMF preservation due to “political differences,” states around the country have used other avenues for land conservation including sales taxes, real estate transfer taxes and oil/gas royalties. Despite the new options that have emerged, the task force recommends LMF bonds as the strategy that will have best chance of support among Maine residents.

Democrat Janet Mills was elected Maine's governor in 2018, taking office in 2019.

“I was surprised to learn that Maine is not as ahead of the curve as I thought we were in terms of conserving lands,” says Maine Gov. Janet Mills.

Alison P. Sucy, director of government affairs and workforce development at the Maine Tourism Association, said the bond measure is needed to enable investments in new facilities at state parks that can draw more tourists and economic activity.

“Millions of visitors come to Maine to experience our natural resources, and our state parks are a highlight of these resources,” said Sucy, who was also a task force member. “These are state-owned assets and, as a state that is heavily dependent on tourism, we must put our best foot forward and maintain and improve these parks and lands.”

The task force also suggested establishing a dedicated revenue source for park improvements in addition to issuing bonds that could draw portion of the state’s meals and lodging taxes. Sucy opposes that strategy because of concerns it could reduce the amount of funding the Maine Tourism Association now receives from the taxes.

“This money is used to market Maine as a destination and has been tremendously successful as visitation numbers and revenues from tourism dollars have been going up year after year since its inception except for the time around the 2008 recession,” said Sucy. “Although our state parks are definitely a worthwhile investment, we strongly oppose the meals and lodging taxes be that revenue stream.”

Smith stressed that Maine’s tourism economy and the state’s goal of increasing population are linked to creating strong natural resource and a healthy environment. The U.S. Census estimated Maine’s population at 1.3 million in 2017 with a median age of 44 compared to 37.7 for the U.S. as a whole.

“Maine’s unique quality places, built and natural, are integral to our economy and our communities,” said Smith, who was a Maine Democratic state representative from 2002 to 2010. “The natural resource sector is our heritage, but productive farmland, working waterfronts and forests are critical to our future economy as well.”

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