The bill, sponsored by a Republican senator, is a response to the governor’s decision to withhold bonds from a state conservation program as leverage with lawmakers.
By Kevin Miller, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA — A bill that would force Gov. Paul LePage to sell voter-approved bonds received strong bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature on Thursday in a rebuke of the governor’s use of land conservation bonds as political leverage with lawmakers.
Senators voted 26-9 in support of a bill that was introduced after LePage vowed to withhold bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program unless lawmakers agreed to allocate state timber revenues to a home heating assistance program. Several dozen land conservation projects negotiated in anticipation of LMF funding are in limbo.
The Maine House followed suit several hours later, passing the bill on a 102-48 vote. Enough Republicans joined all of the Democrats in both chambers to pass the bills with the two-thirds majorities needed to override an anticipated veto by LePage, although current political dynamics at the State House make it impossible to predict how such votes would play out.
Bill sponsor Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the Legislature would be setting “a terrible precedent” by sending a message that any future governor – whether Democrat or Republican – could use bonds already approved by voters to attempt to negotiate unrelated policy issues. Katz, a moderate who has clashed with LePage over this issue, said he could not find any examples in Maine history of governors attempting to “interfere with the will of the Maine people in this way.”
“I think the principle here in the Legislature is very, very simple: When Maine voters have spoken at the ballot box, no one, including the chief executive, should have the right to veto that decision,” Katz said.
The bill would require a governor to issue voter-approved bonds except in five specific instances, including when the debt service on the bonds costs more than the amount originally budgeted or when the bonds threaten the state’s credit rating. The bill also would eliminate the requirement that any bonds carry the governor’s signature.
In March, the LePage administration confirmed that the governor was withholding $11.4 million in bonds for the LMF program as political leverage with lawmakers. The administration is hoping to increase timber harvesting on state-owned land and funnel more money into programs that help low-income Mainers or the elderly convert to more-efficient home heating systems
Two members of the Senate Republican leadership acknowledged the “challenging” political times in Augusta, but urged lawmakers not to support the bill, L.D. 1378, warning that it would disrupt the balance of power.
“The votes we take today will have a lasting effect,” said Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. “By taking this authority away from the chief executive, we will be changing what is a long-standing tradition in this state.”
The LMF program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of forests, farmland and working waterfronts across the state since 1987 through a combination of land sales and conservation easements. The program is financed with bonds approved by voters and requires that all lands provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.
Earlier Thursday, conservation groups as well as a farmer and fishing industry representative held a news conference to keep pressure on the administration and on lawmakers considering Katz’s bill.
Tim Glidden, who was LMF’s longtime executive director before leaving to lead Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said he is not aware of any projects that have fallen through because of the bond situation, but said many organizations are “scrambling” to get extensions on sale or conservation easement agreements. Over the longer term, he said the uncertainty over bonds is likely to have a chilling effect on landowners who might have been willing to participate in the program.
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor will examine the bill when it reaches his desk.
“In terms of the LMF projects, there are none in jeopardy at this time,” Bennett said. “What the governor has done is he has exercised his authority (with bonds) and he will continue to do so unless the law changes.”