By A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine – A showdown is looming in the Maine Legislature over Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to release about $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds until lawmakers approve his plan to increase timber harvesting on public lands.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta is building a bipartisan coalition to support a bill that would prohibit the governor from deferring the release of the bonds, absent extraordinary circumstances. But that doesn’t mean Republicans loyal to LePage don’t have the votes to sustain a likely veto of the bill.
Divisive political strategies often produce casualties. But Republican Sen. Roger Katz says the will of Maine voters shouldn’t be one of them. “When the people of Maine have spoken, no one person – even a governor – should be able to veto that decision,” Katz says.
Bolstered by the support of four additional GOP senators, as well as several Democratic lawmakers, Katz is advancing a bill in response to the current State House impasse stemming from LePage’s refusal to release millions in bonds that would benefit the Land for Maine’s Future program.
LePage says he will not authorize the bonds until lawmakers agree to his plan to harvest additional timber on state-owned public lands. The Republican governor wants to use the additional money to fund new home heating programs.
LePage has leveraged bond proposals to achieve policy goals before. But with some land deals on the verge of collapsing because of the governor’s position, Katz says the game of brinkmanship has gone too far.
“Politics is rough enough around here these days, but we should not add to the meanness by holding innocent bystanders hostages,” Katz said at an Augusta news conference Tuesday. “Voter approvals of land conservation in Cumberland and Augusta shouldn’t be collateral damage to a disagreement about cutting trees in Aroostook. As far as we can tell, the governor’s choice to ignore the will of the people is unprecedented in the 195-year history of our state.”
Democrats in the House – along with some Republican representatives – quickly got behind the bipartisan effort. The bill requires the governor to issue any future general obligation bond that has been approved by voters, unless one of five specific conditions exist. Those conditions include – among others – bonds that produce a debt service greater than the amount budgeted; an adverse impact on the state’s credit rating or an indication that the project the bond was approved for is not proceeding.
Backed by groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Katz’s proposed restraints on the governor’s ability to block the bond issuance process has also attracted plenty of critics.
“Sen. Katz’s proposal is consistent with aspects that he’s done in the past, where he’s always wanting to fight with the governor and not really taking the stance that we need to take to move public policy together,” said Rep. Ken Fredette.
Fredette, of Newport, the House Republican leader, rejected any suggestion that the governor is holding conservation bonds hostage. Instead, he says the real problem at the State House revolves around a general unwillingness to recognize that Mainers have elected LePage to two successive terms in office. Fredette says that means the governor’s critics need to be more open to his policy priorities.
The governor’s potential trump card in the latest clash over bonds would be to veto Katz’s bill. But Katz isn’t particularly worried about that. “I’m very optimistic that, if it comes to a vote, that we’ll have enough votes to pass this and to override a veto – but time will tell,” Katz said.
During the afternoon, LePage released a statement saying, “Katz and the other sponsors of this bill should be more concerned with keeping low-income Mainers warm than grandstanding for TV cameras. If they want LMF bonds released, they and their environmentalist friends should support my bill that would direct money from the state’s timber harvest to help Mainers with more affordable heating options for their homes.”