AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday unveiled his own proposal for a $100 million transportation bond package, but he reiterated his January promise that no bond money will be released until lawmakers pass his plan to repay Maine’s $484 million hospital debt.
During a State House news conference Thursday morning, LePage admitted that he’s holding $105 million in bonds already approved by voters “hostage” to his hospital debt proposal. Those bonds include $51.5 million for transportation projects.
“I’ll admit it. It’s the only way I can get anything done upstairs, is, you’ve got to threaten them,” LePage said. “They won’t get it done unless I force it. If I release those bonds today, the hospitals won’t get paid this year, and that’s a fact.”
During a news conference that touched on a wide range of topics, LePage said the transportation bond he’s proposing will fund much-needed infrastructure improvements in the state. But he said the investment in the state’s most heavily trafficked roads, bridges and ports is only “nibbling around the edges” in terms of sparking economic growth in Maine.
“This project is one effort from the state’s point of view,” LePage said. “The rest of it quite frankly is not up to the governor. It’s up to the Legislature to pass good public policy.”
He pressed lawmakers to pass pro-business policies that he said will make Maine more attractive to out-of-state corporations looking to make major investments. Maine loses out to states with lower taxes and energy costs and right-to-work policies, he said.
“Every time I run into this, guess who wins out: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama,” LePage said. “We have the workforce. We have the infrastructure. We just need better public policy.”
LePage didn’t specifically call on lawmakers to pass right-to-work legislation — there’s a Republican-sponsored proposal pending that would allow employees to work at unionized private businesses without being forced to financially support a union as a condition of employment.
But he did make a push for a proposal his administration has brought before the Legislature again that would raise the limit on renewable energy producers ’ output, which is now 100 megawatts. LePage said large-scale hydropower from Quebec could lower electricity costs in Maine.
“Recently, I was in Hydro-Quebec, and they said, ‘We’ve got all kinds of energy to sell you, affordable energy. But frankly, we don’t want to sell to you in increments of 100 megawatts. It’s not worth it,’” LePage said.
“We are not competing against New England,” he added. “We are competing against the world.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine’s average retail electricity price in 2011 was the lowest in New England but 27 percent above the national average.
LePage on Thursday also joked about a proposal pending in the Legislature, sponsored by Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash, the assistant Senate Democratic leader, to deprive a governor of his pension if the governor isn’t elected to a second term.
“I’m not depending on that pension for my livelihood,” LePage said. “Believe me.”
Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said the $100 million transportation bond package isn’t earmarked for specific projects. Rather, the funds would go toward the highest-priority projects on the state Department of Transportation’s recently released three-year work plan.
“We’re going to use this funding for what I call transformational things,” he said. “When I say that, I mean a bridge that’s going to last for 75-100 years, highway construction that’s going to open up major development opportunities.”
The bill authorizing the bond is sponsored by Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, and co-sponsored by five Republicans and four Democrats. The package includes $46 million for high-priority state highways, $5 million for secondary road improvements, $30 million to replace and rehabilitate bridges and $19 million for ports, harbors, aviation, freight and passenger railroads.
Democratic legislative leaders said they welcomed LePage’s proposal to use bonds to spark economic development, but they said Thursday he should first release the bonds already approved by voters.
“To go out and do a political stunt like this and say, ‘I’m all for bonds,’ is exciting. We’re excited to have him talk about bonds,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the assistant Democratic leader in the House. “But the reality is, he could put people back to work if he would just sign the bonds that he’s sitting on right now.”