It has been a busy year in Augusta and many bills related to the work of Maine’s land trust community have been in play.
With roughly a month left in this year’s legislative session, here is an update on some of the key issues.
Land for Maine’s Future
In 2021, Governor Mills and state legislators agreed to appropriate $40 million, to fund LMF over four years. The program has allocated more than $22 million of those funds in the first two fiscal years. As the remaining funds are committed over the next two fiscal years, the challenge will be maintaining the momentum. That is why Senator Black (R-Franklin County) introduced LD 1285, a bill that would effectively extend the current appropriation by two years and provide LMF an additional $20 million.
To further strengthen LMF into the future, Governor Mills introduced, and Senator Pierce (D-Cumberland County) sponsored LD 1969. This bill builds greater long-term stability in the LMF program in three ways:
- Establishes the LMF Trust Fund to ensure all investment income generated by LMF funds stays with the program, expanding conservation grant opportunities. The LMF Trust Fund is also part of a broader effort to secure more consistent LMF dollars, with a goal of relying less on either future bonds or general fund appropriations. MCHT will be working with partners to identify potential funding sources over the next year.
- Redesigns the LMF Fund Structure, which currently consists of four distinct programs: conservation and recreation, recreational water access, working waterfront, and working farmland. LD 1969 would move all four under the newly created LMF Trust Fund. In addition, the bill would allow the LMF Board to add a fifth program, one focused on recreational infrastructure and wildlife habitat investments on existing municipal, state, and land trust conserved lands.
- Transfers what remains of the $40 million appropriated in 2021 into the LMF Trust Fund. This will ensure future investment income on these dollars will be able to immediately expand the amount of money available to the LMF Board to fulfill its mandate for Maine people.
The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee voted unanimously in favor of both LD 1285 and LD 1969. Coming out of committee with strong bipartisan support will be beneficial as each measure is taken up by the full legislature in early to mid-June.
Mitigating Renewable Energy Impacts
Last fall, conservation groups, the Mills Administration, and the solar industry began meeting to
discuss ways to improve current state law related to renewable energy development impacts to wildlife habitat and farmland. These extensive conversations led to LD 1881. Although the final bill was not endorsed by the solar industry, much of LD 1881’s language is based on their recommendations (the industry primarily objects to section concerning mitigating farmland impacts).
Under current law, energy development companies are required to mitigate impacts to certain high value wildlife habitats by conserving equivalent lands. LD 1881 would:
- add farmland impacts to the law
- clarify how wildlife habitat compensation determinations are made and
- allow the developer to write a check to cover acquisition costs (rather than acquiring the land themselves as they are required to do today).
This check would be deposited in the LMF Trust Fund (see LD 1969 above) and the LMF Board would be charged with ensuring the funds were used appropriately to maximize public benefits. Much of the bill’s details would be decided through rulemaking that would be reviewed by the legislature in 2024.
The Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry committee was divided on this bill. However, a solid majority of 10 committee members voted in support of the bill with amendments and only two voted to oppose the bill. It will head to the House and Senate in June.
Sales Tax Exemption
In late May, the Taxation Committee amended LD 68, a bill to extend sales tax exemption to all nonprofits. Representative Sachs (D-Freeport), the bill’s sponsor, worked with the Maine Association of Nonprofits and the Mills Administration on the amendment, which turns the bill into a resolve to study the issue. The Taxation Committee will have the ability to introduce a new bill in 2024 to extend sales tax exemption to all nonprofits, should the study results point them in that direction. A separate bill sponsored by Representative Kuhn (D-Falmouth) that is focused only on land trust sales tax exemption (LD 695) has received support from seven of the thirteen Taxation Committee members. However, it has a challenging road ahead.
Should it survive votes in the House and Senate, LD 695 will end up on the Appropriations Table. There it will compete with many other initiatives that impact the state’s budget.
Last fall, a MLTN member land trust asked MCHT to build legislative support to amend the state’s subdivision law to exempt conservation parcels from the calculation that determines when a municipality must conduct a subdivision review. By law, a municipality must conduct subdivision review when a landowner divides their property three or more times in a five-year period. We quickly found strong consensus among the land trust community in favor of this proposal and worked with Senator Pierce (D-Cumberland County) to introduce the bill LD 596. The legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal in April.
LD 596 sailed through the legislature and was signed by Governor Mills in early May. It will become law 90 days after the legislature adjourns.
Maine Trails Bond
Many land trusts in Maine have joined the nearly 300-member coalition of supporters backing LD 1156, a $30 million bond for recreational trails. Sponsored by Representative Fay (D-Raymond), this initiative will be considered as the Governor and legislature finalize budget and spending initiatives. The fate of the trails bond will likely be one of the last issues decided before legislative adjournment in mid to late June.
Stay tuned for future updates during the closing weeks of the session, including recommended opportunities to weigh in with your legislators. Thanks to all the land trusts who have supported these and other legislative efforts thus far.