By A.J. Higgins
MPBN news story
AUGUSTA, Maine – Pressure is mounting on Gov. Paul LePage to release more than $11 million in voter-approved conservation bonds.
Thursday morning, a coalition of land conservation groups rallied in support of projects they say could collapse as the result of the governor’s refusal to authorize the bonds unless the Legislature approves his plan to harvest additional timber on public lands.
Meanwhile, members of the Republican-controlled Maine Senate were taking legislative action to bypass the governor.
Even by State House standards, the title of Sen. Roger Katz’s bill is a mouthful: “An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Issuance of Bonds and To Effectuate the Issuance of Bonds To Support Maine’s Natural Resource-based Economy. ”
But the Augusta Republican says the bill’s intent can be more succinctly stated. “When Maine voters have spoken at the ballot box, no one – including a governor – should have the right to veto their decision. That’s it,” said Katz.
But that’s what has been going on in Augusta since April, when LePage announced he would not authorize about $11.5 million in bonds approved by the voters in 2010 and subsequent years until lawmakers agree to his plan to harvest additional timber on state-owned public lands.
LePage wants to use the additional money to fund new home heating programs. And the taking-bonds-hostage strategy has been an effective tool. LePage used it two years ago to convince legislators to vote for his proposal that repaid Maine hospitals carrying outstanding Medicaid debt.
But Katz says LePage stands alone in playing those kinds of political cards. “No previous chief executive has ever ever attempted to hold up issuance of bonds approved by the voters by refusing to sign them,” Katz said. “In other words, in 195 years, no chief executive has ever attempted to interfere with the will of the people in this way.”
And LePage may never get the chance to do it again. The Maine Senate voted 26-9 in favor of Katz’s measure that would remove the statutory requirement that says Maine governors must sign the bonds for issuance within five years of being approved by the voters.
That signature requirement, Katz says, was intended be a ministerial function rather than the discretionary option that LePage has utilized. And Katz says LD 1378, which received an initial veto-proof vote of support, goes way beyond applying to bond proposals awaiting voter approval.
“You’ll see that this bill specifically mentions the bonds for Land for Maine’s Future, projects which have already been approved by the people,” Katz said. “The five-year window for those bonds is closing – and the clock is ticking.”
“I know there’s a lot going on in the state, there’s a lot of money being talked about – but this one’s kind of a no-brainer,” says Marilyn Meyerhans. Meyerhans runs The Apple Farm in Fairfield and the Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, a farming business that she says would not have been possible without funds made available under the Land for Maine’s Future Program.
Meyerhans joined Tim Glidden, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, at the State House as part of rally to support the Land For Maine’s Future Coalition, 250 organizations whose members say the governor’s inaction on LMF bonds could cost the state $20 million in statewide investments.
Glidden said LePage has once again taken the same LMF bonds hostage that he promised to release on an expedited basis two years ago after he got the hospital money.
“The governor at that point said the bonds would be issued, so when we come back now and he’s doing the same thing again with the same bonds – in this case only LMF bonds – a good negotiator doesn’t negotiate twice over the same issue,” Glidden said. “If you have a deal, the deal should be honored.”
But as lawmakers debated Katz’s bill, nine Republicans in the Senate chose to oppose the measure. Speaking for LePage, Adrienne Bennett says the governor has no intention of undermining the LMF program and is open to discussing the bond issue with legislative leaders. She views the concerns raised by LMF supporters as a desperate political statement.
“Politicians are really good at ensuing panic among the public when it comes to issues like this,” Bennett said. “The reality is, there are no projects that are not halted because of this, and we need to just take the time right now to ensure that these taxpayer dollars are used effectively.”
Later in the day, the House voted 102-48 in favor of Katz’s bond bill. The measure now faces final enactment in both houses.
Katz’s bill would require the governor to issue not only bonds in the future but also those that are currently being held hostage under LePage’s ultimatum. The measure now moves to the House.