LePage, sportsmans group tussle over $40 million fish hatchery

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage says he lost the political support of a powerful statewide fish and game organization because he refused to promise that Maine would fund the construction of a $40 million fish hatchery in 2023.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Institute for Legislative Action has identified the construction of a new hatchery as a top political priority. Three of the 22 questions it included in its 2022 political questionnaire used to assess Maine candidates were about the hatchery.

LePage said Monday that he supports the idea, and believes the next governor will find a place for it in a future budget, but said he could not commit to it until he reviewed the details of a hatchery plan and considered how it fits into the state’s overall budgeting priorities.

“They kept pushing and pushing,” LePage said Monday during a phone interview about the alliance’s candidate review process. “I said wait a minute. They just want money. So I called them up and said pull my survey. I don’t want to be involved. I can’t be bought.”

As a result, the alliance gave LePage an incomplete grade in its 2022 election guide, saying it lacked the information it needed to grade him after he decided to withdraw his questionnaire. It gave incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills an A rating and a thumbs up.

David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director and a logger and former state senator from Maine’s 20th district, said on Monday that there is no quid pro quo expectations of candidates. He said the alliance’s board stands by the grades awarded in its legislative guide.

“We thought the interview was cordial and respectful,” Trahan said. “We shared our concerns with Gov. LePage, as we do with all our candidates. All our issues. We were respectful. We never put pressure on any candidate.”

The alliance says a new hatchery with a state-of-the-art filtration system is needed to raise enough fish to stock Maine’s rivers and lakes, and meet lower phosphorous discharge standards that are looming in the future.

The group’s hatchery committee projects that renovating Maine’s existing hatcheries to meet the new phosphorous standards could cost $150 million to $200 million and may still require the state to reduce fish production. In its election guide, the alliance says it would be “far more cost effective to build a new hatchery for $40 million.”

Mills, in her questionnaire, said she supported the construction of a new hatchery and supported both a bond of up to $20 million and the use of general funds to build it. As an avid angler, she said she understands the economic impact that angling has on Maine’s economy.

“I strongly support expanding Maine’s hatchery system,” Mills wrote. “I plan to work with SAM, the legislature, and (Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife) to examine all available options and determine whether borrowing or a general fund appropriation is a better option.”

LePage accused Mills of selling out to curry the alliance’s favor and buy its members’ votes.

“If my opponent wants to promise you $40 million, go to her, she’s already trying to buy the election with the $850 checks,” LePage said, referring to Mills’ inflation relief payments to Maine taxpayers. “I can’t do anything about that, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to give up my principles.”

ALLIANCE BOARD TO MEET

Trahan said that he is calling an emergency meeting of the board of directors on Tuesday to respond to a series of tweets by LePage on Monday morning that claimed the alliance wanted him to promise them $40 million dollars for a project to get a better grade on their survey.

“Unlike Janet Mills, I do not make budget promises during campaign season to curry favor and buy votes,” LePage tweeted. “Maine’s sportsmen and women know they can trust me to defend their rights. I don’t buy endorsements or support by making promises.”

The Mills campaign, reached late Monday afternoon, had no comment about LePage’s claims. Last week, Mills issued a written statement about her top rating with the alliance, saying the outdoors is central to Maine’s economy and its people.

“I have fought hard to make sure that we are preserving and protecting our lands, creating more opportunities for hunting, fishing, and ATVing, and – most importantly – making sure that future generations will be able to enjoy our state in the same way we do today,” Mills said.

In its election guide, the alliance began its explanation of its support for Mills by noting that she had reached out after she was elected in 2018 even though it had endorsed her opponent, Shawn Moody, and then worked with the alliance to temper proposed gun control. Legislation.

The group noted that Mills supported Maine’s “yellow flag” law, which allows police to confiscate guns from someone who is deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. The alliance supported that bill, which requires a medical assessment.

Mills also indicated she would oppose a range of gun restrictions, including requiring a license to purchase ammunition, raising the age to purchase ammo from 18 to 21, requiring background checks for third-party gun sales and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.

LePage, who has A+ ratings from the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America, likely would have fared well on this part of the questionnaire and record check, too, but the group agreed to keep the results of LePage’s incomplete questionnaire confidential.

CONSERVATION ALSO AN ISSUE

LePage likely would have answered differently than Mills in at least one other part of the questionnaire that is important to the alliance – open space conservation programs that protect critical fish and game habitat, especially the Land for Maine’s Future program and deer yard purchases.

Mills supports many conservation programs. LePage said that he supports them, but only if they don’t rely too much on federal funding, and thus growing the national debt, or take the open space off local tax rolls, which he says unfairly shifts a municipality’s tax burden to seniors.

In 2015, he held up $2 million in voter-approved LMF bonds, in addition to more than $11 million in LMF bonds from previous years. At the time, he acknowledged that he was seeking leverage to increase timber harvesting on state lands. He released the bonds later that year.

The alliance is a powerful lobbying group at the State House that rates candidates for the US Congress, Blaine House and state Legislature based on their responses to a questionnaire. It has formally endorsed candidates in the past, but said it does not plan to do so this year.

On Monday, LePage said he wasn’t too worried about the incomplete grade from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

“Let’s put it this way, the NRA has 100,000 members in Maine and SAM’s got 7,000,” LePage said. “If I lose the election by a vote, then it had an impact. But look, my feeling is my principle is more important than buying the election. The budget is more important.”

The alliance also gave an incomplete grade to independent Sam Hunkler, a physician from Beals who will be the third candidate on the November ballot for governor. On his website, Hunkler said Maine must conserve its natural spaces, but does not take a position on conservation programs.


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