Maine lawmakers should have a greater say in the uses of leased public land, speakers told a legislative committee Thursday during a public hearing on a bill to establish how that would happen.
As controversy swirls around the proposed CMP corridor, bills are being considered that would require legislative approval for projects on public lands.
The Maine Constitution was amended in 1993 to require that the sale of public lands or substantial changes in use be subject to the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, but it was largely left up to state department heads to determine whether a change in use is substantial enough to get lawmakers involved.
State agencies have approved many leases without legislative oversight, including those needed to allow Central Maine Power-backed New England Clean Energy Connect to run a controversial electric transmission line from Quebec to Lewiston. Construction began earlier this year, when CMP received its final federal and state permits for the 145-mile-long energy corridor.
Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has proposed a bill, L.D. 1075, that would require the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the Bureau of Parks and Lands to write rules governing when leases of public lands would have to go before the Legislature. Both the House and Senate would have to approve the rules.
Although the law would not apply to the CMP corridor, “a lot of ugly realities have been exposed” by how state regulators handled the project, Bennett said. He is a co-sponsor of a separate bill, L.D. 471, that would require legislative approval of public land leases retroactive to 2014, so the leases related to the CMP corridor would undergo legislative review and require supermajority approval.
Bennett said the bill discussed Thursday would not be retroactive, but would ensure that the rule spelling out when lawmakers must sign off on public-land leases becomes policy going forward, in case the other bill fails.
Bennett told the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry that he helped write the constitutional amendment adopted in 1993, but that since then, the rules have been “bent to the point of breaking.”
Andy Cutko, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said his agency supports Bennett’s proposal but wants to make sure the rule isn’t so broad that even minor projects on public lands – such as a single power pole to provide electricity to a hunting camp – have to go through the Legislature.
But others at Thursday’s public hearing disagreed and said lawmakers need to play a larger role in determining how public lands are used.
“Clearly, the people of Maine, the owners of the land, need and deserve a better process,” said Eliza Townsend, Maine conservation policy director of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Former State Sen. Tom Saviello, a forester, agreed.
“These public lands are a public trust,” he told the committee. “You need to be involved in that decision-making.”Saviello said limits on the extent of the committee’s involvement could be settled as the process goes forward and lawmakers set precedents for the types of projects that would require legislative review.
More than a dozen individuals and groups submitted written testimony in support of Bennett’s bill, and no one opposed it.
The committee has not yet set a date for when it will take up the proposal in a work session before it’s forwarded to the full Legislature.