Democrats put brakes on LePage push to OK $100 million transportation bond Tuesday

Posted July 08, 2013, at 6:26 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage is pressuring Democratic leaders to approve a $100 million transportation bond he proposed months ago when legislators reconvene on Tuesday for what many are calling “veto day.”

Democratic legislative leaders say the decision to borrow $100 million can’t be made in one day and should come only after voter-approved bonds from 2010 and 2012 — which LePage delayed authorizing — are released.

“We need to take a thoughtful, strategic view of this,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. “The governor has sat on voter-approved bonds for two years and to ask the Legislature to act on these in a day seems a bit hollow.”

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the governor putting pressure on lawmakers over a bond now is hypocritical and at odds with agreements already struck between Republicans and Democrats to delay bond negotiations until later this summer.

“It’s important for Mainers to realize that Gov. LePage has projects that have been shovel ready for close to 1,000 days that have stayed on the sidelines because of his inability to sign on the dotted line,” Alfond said Monday afternoon.

LePage delayed issuing $104 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012 for a range of projects, including transportation, redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station, and local economic and community development projects. He only recently allowed those bonds to move forward after the Legislature enacted his plan to pay Maine hospitals $484 million in back Medicaid payments with the proceeds of a renegotiated state liquor contract. Democrats regularly criticized LePage for his refusal to issue those bonds.

State Treasurer Neria Douglass, a Democrat, has said that she needs detailed information from departments within the executive branch before she can sell the bonds voters approved in 2010 and 2012. Sawin Millett, LePage’s finance commissioner, said he expects most of the bonds to be issued between now and January 2014, with about $19 million projected to be sold in January 2015.

LePage, with support from Republican lawmakers, wants the Legislature to borrow more money for road, bridge and other transportation infrastructure upgrades. He proposed LD 1095, which would provide $100 million in funds for rehabilitating transportation infrastructure from roads to bridges to ports and railroads, in March. It includes $46 million for highway projects, $5 million for secondary roads, $30 million for bridges and $19 million for marine facilities, railroads and airports.

“This transportation bond proposal is a good one,” LePage said in a prepared statement on Monday, the day before the Legislature is set to return to Augusta for one last day before departing for the summer. “If approved, the Department of Transportation will immediately begin to evaluate requests and fund projects based on economic and infrastructure priorities.”

Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said the provisions in the bond proposal would make major improvements that would spur economic development.

“This is not a bond to pay for railroads or walking paths to nowhere,” he said.

But Democratic legislative leaders say the merits of the transportation bond should be weighed against other state government borrowing needs.

The governor’s transportation bond is among nearly $1.2 billion in bond proposals floated by lawmakers this session, including tens of millions of dollars worth of transportation spending proposed by Democrats. Alfond and Eves said they and Republicans agreed earlier this session that because of the late enactment of the 2014-2015 biennial budget, they would not rush putting together a bond package.

Alfond said that LePage’s refusal to issue previously approved bonds has already held up myriad projects and the creation of numerous jobs. Those bonds include $51.5 million for transportation infrastructure improvements and upgrades.

“The people I talk with in the construction industry say they start lining up their season in April,” said Alfond. “By the time these bonds are issued almost the entire season will have been lost and that is directly the personal responsibility of Gov. LePage.”

As for the prospect of the Legislature acting on a new bond proposal on Tuesday, both Eves and Alfond said it won’t happen. Eves said he expects that the House will reconvene in September when the Senate is scheduled to gather to confirm appointments.

Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, who is the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee, said Monday that he thought putting the decision off until September would be “cutting it close.”

“We really need to have this done for the November ballot,” said Parry, who added that he expects Democrats will negotiate hard for provisions not in the governor’s package, such as education and conservation spending.

House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said in a prepared statement Monday that Democrats should allow LePage’s transportation bond to move forward on its own.

“House Republicans, including our four members on the budget committee, feel strongly that a transportation bond should be handled separately from other bond proposals,” said Fredette. “Just like with the hospital repayment bill, Democrats have recognized a good, bipartisan jobs proposal and have decided to jeopardize the whole thing by using it as leverage to advance a contentious spending spree that doesn’t enjoy the same support.”

Alfond said transportation spending would comprise a significant portion of whatever bond package lawmakers agree on.

“There have been many instances over the first session where I think there’s been artificial pressure put on the Legislature by the governor to make things happen quick or slow,” said Alfond. “As a state we’re usually very conservative around the bonding that we do, so when we do bond it has to be the right number, the right mix and the right projects to move forward.”

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