AUGUSTA, Maine — On his way to a manufacturing conference in Florida, Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage issued a proclamation Wednesday calling the Legislature back to work Aug. 29.
In a release, LePage said lawmakers are expected to pass a $149.5 million state borrowing package that has been agreed to between his administration and leaders in the Legislature’s Democratic majority.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders said Wednesday they were optimistic the legislation would move forward quickly with strong bipartisan support.
Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said lawmakers and LePage made a breakthrough in negotiations late last week and were able to reach an agreement that would allow a five-bond package to go out to voters this November.
“We were at an impasse and the right thing to do for Maine was to find a way to break the impasse and we were able to do this,” Alfond said. He also said that Democrats have been pressuring LePage for months on a bonding package for transportation including highways and bridges.
“Earlier last month the governor finally started talking about his willingness to support a transportation bond,” Alfond said. “We, as Democrats, have been encouraging and urging Gov. LePage to invest in our state including our roads and bridges.”
Democrats also again noted earlier voter-approved bonding that LePage waited to release until the Legislature passed a bill to pay off about $500 million in state debt. LePage said he would not put the state deeper in debt until it paid off the outstanding back payment to hospitals for services they provided under the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare.
“For two and a half long years his failure to release voter-approved bonds held back hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private investments and delayed projects and jobs for over two years,” Alfond said. “Two construction seasons have been lost and we will never get those back.”
But Republican leaders backed LePage’s decision to withhold the bonds until the hospital debt was paid.
“It would have been fiscally irresponsible to go on a borrowing and spending spree before paying off our past-due welfare bills,” House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said. “The package that Democrats and Republicans agreed to last Friday, however, is a sensible one. It’s not too large, and it prioritizes essential functions of government such as transportation and education infrastructure.”
The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will begin working the compromise bill — which includes funding for highways, bridges, ports and railroads as well as funding for improvement to state university and community college facilities— on Thursday.
The measure also includes $14 million to renovate state Army and Air National Guard armories around the state.
“Now is the time for the state to invest in these much-needed infrastructure improvements, especially when the federal government is flat-funding these projects,” LePage said.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats, LePage and minority Republican leaders had also agreed to take up another bonding package in January 2014 to address other state needs, including investments in research and development, land and water conservation and sewer infrastructure improvements. Eves said Democrats wanted to do more now but needed to reach an agreement quickly.
“In a divided government, you have to compromise,” Eves said. “Just like the budget, we were able to reach a bipartisan agreement that’s good for our economy and good for the people of Maine.”
Eves said keeping negotiations tightly focused on infrastructure improvements allowed agreement on the overall package.
“Maine construction workers just can’t afford to sit out another construction season, we need to get these people back to work and get beyond the partisan politics,” Eves said.
LePage also urged lawmakers to address issues with Riverview, the state’s psychiatric hospital in Augusta, which is at risk of losing nearly $20 million in funding from the federal government over deficiencies discovered there.
In May, LePage proposed adding a psychiatric ward to the state prison in Warren at a cost of $3.3 million to address the issues identified in state and federal audits at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, which houses some 60 forensic patients who have been sent to the facility by way of the state’s criminal justice system.
“Our first concern is for the safety of the patients and our staff,” LePage said. “We want to assure these patients, their families and Riverview employees that our administration is working toward a resolution, and we are requesting swift action from the Legislature. This is a dangerous issue that needs to be resolved now.”
Alfond said Wednesday that Democrats were also committed to finding a solution. He said lawmakers had requested that both the commissioners of the state’s departments of Health and Human Services and Corrections attend the Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday.
Alfond said he was uncertain that LePage’s proposal to add a wing to the state prison would be the final answer to the problems at Riverview but before ruling it in or out, lawmakers needed the feedback of those key commissioners.
“We just don’t know yet,” Alfond said. “That’s why we need the assistance of both commissioners so we can assure that we can get all of these details out so we can come up with solutions.”
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet in a work session on the bonding bill at 1 p.m. Thursday.