Forecaster Forum: LePage and friends, not Legislature, to blame for LMF bond fiasco

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It’s a rare moment when a Town Council summons a state legislator to a meeting to justify why he betrayed the people who elected him. But that’s what happened in Cumberland Town Hall on July 27.

Several councilors vented their outrage with Republican Rep. Mike Timmons’ recent votes on two bills that would have moved Cumberland’s land conservation projects closer to obtaining promised funds from the Land for Maine’s Future program.

Since serving as chairwoman of the Falmouth Town Council when 70 percent of Falmouth voters approved our historic 2007 Open Space Conservation referendum, my commitment to land conservation has not wavered. Two out of every three voters in the town of Cumberland voted in support of the LMF bond package in 2012. Since I began my service in the Maine Senate, I have supported the issuance of the LMF bonds at every turn. My votes reflect the shared values and priorities of the people I represent.

The LMF program, since its establishment in 1987, has conserved more than 560,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands for a variety of activities, including hunting, hiking, fishing, camping, snowmobiling, picnicking and bird watching. The LMF program has supported high-paying jobs and strengthened local economies through the permanent protection of over 315,000 acres of commercial forestland, 37 farms, and more than 24 working waterfronts. The majority of Maine voters – 60 percent, urban and rural, northern and southern, regardless of political party – have consistently ratified LMF’s bond issues as recently as 2010 and 2012.

In Cumberland, the projects that were promised LMF funds, but are still awaiting payment, are Knight’s Pond and the Wormell Farm. For the Knight’s Pond parcel, part of which lies in North Yarmouth, private donors, local taxpayers, and nonprofit groups have contributed roughly $1 million to purchase the property. The closing requires only $225,000 of LMF funds, but the governor has jeopardized it by refusing to issue the LMF bonds unless the Legislature bows to his demands for political payback.

Like me, many legislators felt frustrated when the governor demanded concessions in exchange for issuing the voter-approved LMF bonds. This demand was a violation of both the spirit and the letter of the LMF program. Moreover, it was a violation of Maine voters’ trust. As Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said, “When Maine voters have spoken at the ballot box, no one, including a governor, should have a right to veto their decision. That’s it.”

Many of us reached out personally to the governor, impressing upon him how important these bonds are to our communities. We urged him not to hold them hostage in exchange for his own political gain. Toward the end of the session, the legislature passed Senator Katz’ bill, LD 1378, which aimed to shake the bonds loose from the governor’s unilateral control. This was a bi-partisan victory.

The governor vetoed LD 1378. On July 16, legislators took up the question of whether to override the veto, which required a two-thirds majority. Several House Republicans caved to the governor’s pressure and reneged on their initial votes in support of LD 1378, killing the bill. Timmons was among the six representatives who flipped their votes, making false claims about the Maine Constitution (which is silent on the matter of bonding) and false claims about trips to the bond market, which can happen more than once a year, especially when interest rates remain so favorable.

In a very simple and focused bill, the Legislature passed an amended LD 1454, which said, in short, “Governor, issue the LMF bonds.” Timmons voted against this bill, too.

It’s neither the Republicans nor the Democrats who have left our land conservation projects twisting in the wind. It’s the governor and his few remaining allies. If he vetoes LD 1454, the Legislature will consider a veto override when we reconvene in January 2016. Again, I will vote with my community. My hope is that the bipartisan support that LMF has garnered for 25 years will resurface and that we’ll be able to preserve our precious sites for generations to come.

State Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, represents Senate District 25, which includes Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth, and part of Westbrook.

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State Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth.