AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage traded barbs Thursday about who’s to blame for the hold-up of voter-approved bonds.
LePage has refused to issue the bonds until the Legislature replenishes the state’s budget stabilization fund, which lawmakers from both parties agreed to use $21 million from last month as part of a measure to restore municipal revenue sharing to towns and cities. LePage let the measure go into law without his signature.
It’s a political fight that has been ongoing for weeks — and in some ways, years — with both sides using whatever they can as leverage to get their way on the hot-button issues of sharing revenues with towns and cities, banking surplus funds for a rainy day and closing a more than $90 million state budget shortfall. Caught in the debate are tens of millions of dollars in voter-approved bonds which LePage is for the second time in the past few years using as a bargaining chip to achieve his goals.
What’s new is that LePage’s proposal to build the stabilization fund back to $60 million — which he and his finance chief argue is crucial to avoid a credit downgrade for the state — now exists on paper. The governor says his authorization of the bonds depends on passage of LD 1807, which was released two days ago and referred to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
“The governor will release the bonds tomorrow if this bill is passed,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett on Thursday. “The Democrats could speed this process along if they wanted to. The ball is in their court and the bonds are hanging in the balance of what the Democrats do right now because they control the legislative process.”
Speaking at the Maine Manufacturing Summit in New Gloucester Thursday, the governor accused the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate of being “irresponsible, and bordering on incompetent,” according to WLBZ.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Bennett’s argument ignores that LePage is the one who is tying release of the voter-approved bonds to the passage of a bill.
“The governor can release the bonds right now,” said Eves. “We’re not going to be pressured into a position of solving the governor’s problems. He created this mess and he can solve it.”
Neither Eves nor Alfond would speculate on what the Legislature will decide on LePage’s newest bill nor say when they expect to bring it to the House and Senate for votes. Alfond said his biggest personal problem with LePage’s bill is that it uses budget surpluses that the administration hadn’t identified previously, despite the fact that LePage is the first Maine governor in recent history to refuse to write a state budget bill.
“The governor has not been participating fully in the budget process and then when he does, he and his [finance] commissioner just come up with pockets of money that apparently have been there and that they have not shared while we’re trying to solve a $100 million budget deficit,” said Alfond. “It should concern all Mainers that he and his commissioner are not being forthcoming with all the unspent dollars in state government.”
It is unclear when LD 1807 will be debated in the Appropriations Committee.