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Lawmakers Poised to Extend Land For Maine's Future Bonds

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine House has taken what some say is as a first step toward ending an often acrimonious standoff between Governor Paul LePage and the legislature over a public land conservation program.

For months the rhetoric over the bonds connected to the land for Maine's Future Program has been heated. At a town meeting in Rockland LePage said that he "hated" the program, but would allow some projects to go forward because the voters had approved the bonds. For the past several weeks there have been behind the scene discussions between members of the governor's staff and the partisan groups in the legislature seeking to resolve the lingering issue of the $6.5 million in bonds that were approved, but whose authorization has expired. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport, says it's time to deal with the problem.

"Any time we can put out a fire here at the State House it is important to me," Thibodeau says.

Thibodeau says senate republicans discussed the move at their first caucus of the session and decided that rather than pass a new bill, it would be more efficient to recall an earlier measure from the Governor's desk.

"All parties are in agreement that we are going to recall that bill from his desk and make some adjustments to it and get it back down to the governor's desk for his signature so we can sell them bonds," Thibodeau says.

And it appears all four caucuses of the legislature are supporting the move.

"This is a good way to move forward on a program that Mainers believe in, they want to move forward," says Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond (D-Portland). "It's part of our brand. It's part of our natural competitive asset."

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport says his fellow house Republicans will support a clean bill that simply addresses reauthorizing the bonds, and will step away from a new measure that would restrict the governor's authority in his handling of such bonds.

"We’re going to pull that bill back. We are going to amend it to simply reauthorize the issuance of the bonds," Fredette says. "The Governor has the authority to do that once that's done. That's what the agreement is."

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, a Democrat from Skowhegan, is pleased with the solution, which he characterizes as "more than just a compromise."

"This is an agreement about moving LMF forward. There's a number of projects around the state of Maine that are hanging in the wind. The uncertainty around the LMF program has been devastating to conservation."

After the Senate votes to recall the bill from the governor's desk, lawmakers plan to amend it into a simple re-authorization measure. They hope to get it to the Governor immediately. Several conservation groups say they're pleased with the progress on the issue, which has caused delays in some projects recent months.

The program has been around since 1987, and has helped conserve more than a half million acres of forests, farmland and working waterfronts through both outright purchases of land or through conservation easements. Projects require matching funds, raised privately or from the federal government, and must allow public access for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.