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                           By Tom Doak, Executive Director

     As I write this, many of the thorniest issues the Legislature is grappling with remain unresolved.  There has been movement of a number of issues related to woodland owners, however.  

     The Legislature defeated LD 1599 “An Act to Improve the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law,” a proposal from the administration that we opposed. The full Legislature acted to kill the bill after the Taxation Committee voted unanimously in opposition. I stated then that the legislative action was not a guarantee we would not see another Tree Growth bill, and that proved to be correct. Soon after LD 1599 disappeared, the Governor brought forward a very familiar proposal, LD 1891, “An Act to Improve Compliance with the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law.”

     The bill was essentially a scaled-down version of language which was included in LD 1599, and several which had been rejected by the Legislature. Since the bill was brought forward after all committees were supposed to have finished their work, the Taxation Committee had to hold a hearing quickly. The day after the bill was printed the hearing took place. Only the administration – the Governor’s Office and the Maine Forest Service – testified in favor of the bill. We opposed the bill, as did several other organizations and individuals. The Taxation Committee voted 11-1 in opposition. When the legislation made it to the full Legislature, it quickly killed the bill.

     Just when the debate about the Tree Growth Tax Law appeared to be settled for the session, LD 1844, “An Act to Provide the State the Right of First Refusal for the Purchase of Certain Land on Which a Subsidy Has Been Paid,” came forth. Even though it proposed to amend tax law, it was sent, not to the Taxation Committee as is the norm, but to the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee (ACF). As originally constructed, it would require anyone in one of the four current use tax programs (Tree Growth, Open Space, Farmland, or Working Waterfront) when selling land to a non-US entity, to give the State of Maine right of first refusal on the same terms. If the state said no, the land could not be sold for less in the future without the state having the right to buy the land again. The acreage affected was set at any sale of 2,500 acres or more. The bill had clear legal and constitutional issues, including what appears to be a taking of an ownership interest in real estate (right of first refusal). In that case, the state would have to pay every landowner for that right. To overcome some of the legal issues, supporters changed the bill language to apply only to the Tree Growth Tax Law program.  The new language affected all sales, not just to non-U.S. entities and exempted sales to family members and Native American tribes. The state would have only one chance to exercise its right of first refusal, and the acreage was increased to 5,000 acres. 

     Setting a relatively high acreage amount was designed to keep the thousands of smaller  landowners who are in the Tree Growth Tax Law program out of the fight. The proposal would clearly impose a new, completely unrelated requirement on the Tree Growth Tax Law program, however. Landowners who enroll in the program know the requirements when they sign up. If the state can change those rules anytime it wants – and the landowner must comply or pay significant penalties to get out of the program – it makes the program a target for attaching all sorts of requirements on landowners unrelated to its purpose.

     While we do not have members with 5,000 acres or more, Tree Growth should not be the target for unrelated requirements. If this change were made, we would be constantly fighting attempts to lower the acreage threshold. We opposed the bill.  LD 1844 was voted out of the ACF Committee with a surprisingly positive vote of eight in favor, four opposed and 1 with a separate proposal. We expect a close vote in both the House and Senate. Even if it is approved by the Legislature, it will have to go through the appropriations process and survive a potential veto by the Governor.

     We continue to follow two bills of note held over from last session: LD 1391, “An Act to Ensure the Continuation of the Landowners Relations Program” (which we support); and LD 8, “An Act to Provide Training for Forest Rangers to Carry Firearms” (which we oppose.) They require funding or they will be rejected. The outcome of these two bills won’t be known until the end of the session.


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