AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic legislative leaders Thursday called on Gov. Paul LePage to release $105 million in voter-approved bonds that he so far has refused to issue, trying to move State House debate beyond the governor’s proposal to repay Maine’s $484 million hospital debt.
During an afternoon news conference, the party’s legislative leaders pitched the release of bond money as a measure that would spark economic activity and create jobs throughout the state while improving the condition of Maine’s roads. They also said LePage has given Maine residents a “ransom note” by pledging to issue the bonds if lawmakers sign off on his proposals to repay the hospital debt and take out another $100 million bond to pay for the construction of a new state prison.
“We have before us a surefire way to boost Maine’s economy and create jobs,” said Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, the House Democratic leader. “All Gov. LePage needs to do is release bonds that Maine people have already approved.”
The voter-authorized bonds include $51.5 million for transportation infrastructure improvements and $53.5 million for conservation, clean water upgrades, and construction and energy-efficiency upgrades at University of Maine System campuses. The projects include investments in community dental clinics, airport and port improvements, and downtown development initiatives.
LePage last May said he wouldn’t release bonds “until we get our spending problem fully under control.”
In January, the governor said he would sell the bond package to investors if the Legislature approved his plan to pay back the state’s hospital debt and signed off on a $100 million bond to pay for the construction of a new state prison in Windham. LePage and Republican leaders have been selling the deal as a $700 million economic boost.
“He’s consistently maintained that he would issue bonds when it is fiscally prudent to do so,” said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett. “The governor’s happy to release the authorized bonds once we pay off this old debt. It appears to be that the Washington-style management is being displayed by Democrats, saying that we need to issue new debt when we have not paid our bills.”
But Democrats said LePage has no reason to wait to release voter-approved bonds.
“If the governor is truly invested in getting more than 3,200 people back to work, then he will release the bonds immediately,” said Sen. Seth Goodall of Richmond, the Senate Democratic leader.
“How many people like me are not going to have a job because of the governor’s insistence on holding off on these bonds and intimidating and threatening people to do his will?” asked Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, the assistant Senate Democratic leader, who said he sometimes takes construction jobs.
In a response, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said Democrats were “just looking for a way to distract from the issue they really don’t want to confront, which is the governor’s common-sense plan to pay off the state’s debt to Maine hospitals. We’ve been here before. The governor has already said that he’ll issue these bonds, but we must pay our bills before taking on new debt.”
Democrats have been hesitant to embrace LePage’s hospital debt payback plan, which depends on the state renegotiating its wholesale liquor contract and using the increased revenues to pay off the hospitals. Goodall has proposed a competing liquor contract proposal of his own without including a plan for paying off the hospital debt, which has accrued since 2009 for services hospitals have provided under the state’s Medicaid program but for which they haven’t been reimbursed.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for stalling the hospital debt plan, and LePage has said twice in the past week he plans to veto any bill passed by the Legislature until lawmakers pass the debt plan.
The state Senate on Thursday passed five bills that now head to LePage’s desk for his signature. The measures include a bill to give the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner the latitude to change the opening date of the state’s fishing season based on weather conditions, legislation that would allow pharmacists to administer a broader range of vaccines and a bill to make educators in the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program eligible for loan forgiveness.