In 2015, the land trust community stepped up to address a series of controversial bills in Augusta. The Governor’s decision to hold up the Land for Maine’s Future (LMF) program for the second time in two years stole most of the headlines. However, the legislature also addressed whether land trust preserves should be taxed and numerous other bills with conservation implications.
In 2013, the Governor held up voter-approved LMF bonds until the legislature agreed to pay off the state’s hospital debt. By June, Maine’s lawmakers agreed and the Chief Executive announced “as a matter of good faith” that he would release all existing conservation bonds. Two years later, the Governor has chosen to go against his word and is once again using the same funds for the conservation program as leverage to secure passage of an unrelated bill in the legislature.
Throughout the session, LMF supporters met with the Chief Executive’s staff and his legislative allies. As these talks failed, land trusts turned to legislation. Initial energy focused on LD 1378, a bill to curb the Governor’s authority to hold up voter-approved bonds. It succeeded initially, but the legislature failed to override a veto. A second proposal, LD 1454, was enacted as the session ended. This resolve directs the Chief Executive to borrow and spend existing funds to close projects approved by the LMF Board. Governor LePage has promised to deliver a veto of this bill when the legislature reconvenes in January. Until then, LMF funds remain in limbo.
In 2015, the land trust community also worked closely with the Maine Association of Nonprofits and other nonprofit organizations to successfully oppose a number of measures that threatened tax exemption for conservation land. The most concerning of these bills was LD 1148. The legislation’s major provision was to allow municipalities to deny property tax exemption to land trusts through a public referendum. Following the public hearing, where a half dozen land trusts offered compelling testimony concerning the public benefits provided on their conserved land, the Taxation Committee voted unanimously against the proposal.
Land trusts also played a role in the defeat of Governor LePage’s budget proposal calling for partial taxation of properties owned by land trusts and other charitable organizations.
The legislature addressed more than 1450 bills in 2015. In addition to the once referenced above, there were dozens of others bills that touched on issues related to land conservation, such as wind power siting, mining rules, endangered species, and current use taxation. A list of these bills and their final outcomes can be found here.