By The BDN Editorial Board
Bangor Daily News editorial
Gov. Paul LePage has again threatened to withhold bond funding until he gets what he wants. This time, he is holding hostage money for the Land for Maine’s Future program — bonds voters approved in 2010 and 2012 — until he gets approval to cut more trees on state-owned land.
Although his “my way or the highway” strategy often works — he got lawmakers to approve a plan to repay Medicaid money owed to the state’s hospitals while threatening to withhold bonds — it creates instability that harms the state. Just as changing the terms of wind power projects after contracts have been negotiated sends a message that the state is not an honest broker, unilaterally refusing to sign off on voter-approved bonds adds to Maine’s regulatory instability.
LePage has had a complicated relationship with state borrowing. In 2012, he vetoed a $20 million research and development bond. That same year, he allowed four other bond issues to make it to the ballot, but said voters should not approve them. One was a bond to allow the Land for Maine’s Future program to purchase land for conservation. In a memo to lawmakers, he wrote: “Even with the voters’ authorization to borrow this money, my administration will not spend it until we’ve lowered our debt significantly. That could be several years.”
A month later, he told state agencies not to plan on using bond money that voters had already approved. The affected projects ranged from improvements to community dental clinics to energy upgrades at University of Maine System campuses to airport, ferry and railroad improvements.
Although it subverts the will of the voters, the governor has the power to do this. While the state treasurer’s office ultimately puts Maine’s bonds on the market for sale, the governor and treasurer must sign a financial order before bonds can be issued and sold. Bonds must be sold within five years of voter approval.
Voters in 2012 approved a $5 million bond issue for LMF. Another $6.5 million was approved in 2010. If those bonds are not approved for sale by November, most will expire.
LMF currently has $2.2 million on hand, far short of the amount needed to fund 30 projects — totalling $9 million — the board signed off on last year with the understanding bond money would be forthcoming. Of those projects, 13, with a total price tag of $4.1 million, are expected to close between now and October, LMF director Sarah Demers told the program’s board this week. These projects range from protecting deer wintering areas, which will benefit hunters, to preserving a farm.
While most tout LMF for purchasing parcels to guarantee public access to undeveloped land, it has also focused on preserving access for fishermen to ocean-front piers and other waterways for sportsmen. Each LMF purchase involves long negotiations with the families, corporations and others selling the land or easements. Suddenly taking money away from LMF undermines those business dealings.
“This approach erodes the trust between businesses, local community partners and state government, while resulting in lost opportunities to strengthen Maine’s vital tourism, farming, forestry and fishing economies,” said Tim Glidden, who served for 10 years as director of the Land for Maine’s Future program and is now president of Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Similar things were said last month when the Maine Public Utilities Commission, with a new commissioner who had been LePage’s legal counsel, reopened negotiations with wind power companies after contracts had been approved.
“It’s not easy attracting investment dollars to Maine and creating a practice of reneging on commitments will only make it more difficult,” Jackson Parker, president and CEO of Woolwich-based Reed & Reed, said of that situation.
In 2013, Norwegian energy company Statoil abandoned a $120 million project in Maine after the PUC reopened the contract process after a term sheet had been negotiated. The company cited the changes and uncertainty they created in its decision to withdraw from Maine. Its investment went to Scotland instead.
Maine has many strikes against it when it comes to attracting investment. Changing the rules after deals have been struck — whether for land conservation purchases or electricity supplies — adds to the list of reasons not to work with the state.