AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday he is drafting a new bill that would allow the sale of $6.5 million in conservation bonds beyond the November expiration date.
Some welcomed LePage offering a route out of the controversy surrounding the Land for Maine’s Future bonds. Others argued the bill, which would open the window for bond sales until June 2016, may be unconstitutional.
The administration responded that the bill takes the Constitution into account.
Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he also proposed a bill similar to LePage’s on Wednesday morning.
LePage said in a meeting with reporters Wednesday afternoon he hopes he and the Legislature can use the extension he proposes for further negotiations on his proposal to use revenue from timber harvesting on state lands to fund an energy-efficiency program for low-income Mainers. A similar bill, proposed by LePage, was rejected two years ago in the 126th Legislature.
“I’ve told the Legislature from Day One that I’m not against Land for Maine’s Future bonds,” LePage said. “I’m against inequality between the rich and the poor when it comes to legislation. LMF bonds go primarily to people who are wealthy, but they’re paid for by the Maine taxpayers.”
LePage said he has submitted his proposal to the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes, which writes bills, and that the bill should be ready for lawmakers when they convene Thursday morning in Augusta.
“If you want to sell Land for Maine’s Future bonds, I want an equal amount, in this case $5 million, from an account that has $10 million in it, to give to people in rural Maine to convert their heating systems,” the governor said.
LePage said his bill would not include any kind of tradeoff provision, and he hopes the Legislature will pass the bill in good faith.
The Maine Constitution gives the Legislature up to two years to extend the original five-year window in which voter-approved bonds must be sold, but only after the original five-year window expires. LePage and Pouliot said their bills take the Constitution into account, though LePage’s proposal to extend the bonding window until June 2016 is at odds with a provision in the Constitution that says an extension must be for five years.
“At this point in time the general feeling is probably that it’s more appropriate for us to do what we normally do and extend these bonds for five years,” House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said.
Pouliot said he submitted his bill after being flooded with calls from his constituents.
“The Howard Hill project is in my district, and I have heard from a number of my constituents asking me to support the LMF bonds so this project can move forward,” Pouliot said. “Without an extension, this project and others like it across our state will be at a standstill.”
It was revealed during a meeting of the Land for Maine’s Future board of directors on Tuesday that about $6.5 million of a total of $11.5 million in outstanding voter-approved conservation bonds overseen by the program will expire in November, five years to the day from when they were approved by voters in 2010. Without legislative action, that would effectively scuttle the bond funding because the state traditionally goes to the bond market only in June.
According to Article IX of the Maine Constitution, the Legislature can extend the validity of the bonds for five more years, as long as it approves such a move with a majority vote within two years after the first five-year window expires.
State Treasurer Terry Hayes said Wednesday there are no plans she is aware of to go back to the bond market before June 2016. Hayes said she was directed by LePage to exclude the Land for Maine’s Future bonds from last month’s bond sale.
“I met with him in his office and he told me he wasn’t going to approve the sale of the LMF bonds,” said Hayes. “The governor doesn’t work for me and I don’t work for him. I can duke it out with him but at the end of the day we need the opportunity for the Legislature to reauthorize the bonds. I’m the banker for the state. I’m not the policy maker.”
According to Land for Maine’s Future Director Sarah Demers, there are 30 projects across Maine that have been selected for funding by the organization’s board.
“If funds were available, the funds would be released and projects would close once all of the LMF grant requirements had been fulfilled,” wrote Demers in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News. “At this time there are two projects that have met all of the grant requirements and the other 28 projects are in the process of completing the requirements.”
Demers said she and her staff have been in touch with many of the applicants to tell them that funds are not being made available at this time.
David Trahan, a former Republican lawmaker who is now executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, has long been critical of LePage on this issue.
“This 11th hour and 58th minute ‘Hail Mary’ by the governor is the same thing he proposed two years ago, which got us into this mess,” said Trahan. “The governor is proposing a solution to a problem he created. All he has to do is release those bond projects. If he did that, it would be an act of good faith to organizations like mine.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett responded by saying the governor’s chief concern is the state’s neediest residents and that “Trahan is reacting selfishly at this point to not even consider those families.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, is sponsoring LePage’s bill.
“I think we all support the Land for Maine’s Future program and want to make sure its processes are consistent with the law,” said Fredette.
Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, said that to some degree, the Land for Maine’s Future Program, the funding of which has never failed to gain support at referendum, has already been damaged because of LePage’s refusal to sign the bonds and his call for an investigation into the program.
“This whole thing I just find to be ridiculous,” said Abello. “It’s a disaster.”