For the second time in three years, Governor LePage is refusing to release Land For Maine’s Future bond funds unless the Legislature yields to an unrelated policy goal. Maine voters have approved LMF bonds by nearly 2 to 1 margins seven times since the program’s inception in 1987. Never before has a governor shown such disdain for the will of the voters by politicizing a popular bond program that enjoys broad bipartisan support. Moreover, LePage is breaking an express promise he made in 2013 to release these specific LMF funds. Although I disagree with many of the Governor’s ideas, politics is politics and he was fairly re-elected. That said, I believe his integrity has reached a new low with this move.
For an especially withering analysis of the governor’s ploy, see this column by George Smith, former Executive Director of the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine. For another overview of the issue, see this press release from Maine Coast Heritage Trust and The Nature Conservancy.
Land trusts, sportsmen’s organizations, and other conservationists statewide are encouraging members and supporters to contact their elected officials to voice their disapproval of LePage’s actions. In particular, it is thought that contacts with Republican State Senators or State House members will be most useful in pressuring LePage to make good on his promise to spend the LMF money in an expedited fashion. You can find your legislators’ contact information here.
Just a few months after land trusts celebrated a historic victory before the Maine Supreme Court in the Francis Small Heritage Trust case, Governor LePage is seeking to weaken the property tax exemption laws for all nonprofit charities. The Maine Legislature is currently considering the Governor’s proposal to tax charities with real estate valued over $500,000 in a municipality. Any amount over the $500,000 threshold would be taxed at 50% of the ordinary tax rate. Many land trusts would face steep taxes as a result of this plan. Current sources tell me that the Governor’s bill is facing strong bipartisan headwinds in the Legislature, and if nonprofits keep up the pressure there is a good chance the proposal will be defeated. Tellingly, no municipality appeared in support of the plan at a public hearing in February, and the Maine Municipal Association did not take a position for or against.
However, there are other bills afoot that might weaken the property tax exemption for conservation land. Some of these bills have yet to be printed, so we don’t know all the details. For example, we expect the State House Representative from Limington, where FSHT operates, to introduce “An Act To Implement a Local Ballot Referendum for Municipalities To Allow or Disallow Nonprofit Landowners of Large Parcels To Be Tax-exempt.” Based on its title, this bill appears to be an attempt to weaken or overturn the FSHT case. It is still early in the legislative session and a lot can happen in the next three months. To see an MCHT list (updated periodically) of all bills affecting land conservation, click here.
On Saturday, April 25 at the Maine Land Conservation Conference, Karin Marchetti Ponte and I will be outlining the state of play regarding land trust property tax exemption in the wake of the FSHT case. A representative from Francis Small will tell about their decisions to pursue litigation and their relationship with the town after the landmark decision.
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