March 19, 2019
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Debate over politically charged $1.2 billion in bonds seethes at State House

AUGUSTA, Maine — Despite near-constant pressure in recent weeks from Gov. Paul LePage and Republican legislators, it seems unlikely that voters will see a question about the governor’s $100 million transportation bond on the state ballot this November.

Lawmakers on the powerful Appropriations Committee on Tuesday heard testimony from experts about that bond and more than 30 others totaling roughly $1.2 billion. After hearing that testimony, the panel took no action to propose any bonds to the full Legislature, and Democratic leaders continue to resist the governor’s call for exclusive, immediate action on his transportation bond.

LePage and his allies argue that the transportation bond he has proposed would create construction jobs and pay for improvements to roads, bridges, public transportation and port and rail facilities.

The idea of borrowing for transportation projects has broad bipartisan support but LePage’s bond proposal has become the political battle of this legislative off-season. The debate over the bond is about when to approve it, not whether.

LePage and Commissioner David Bernhardt of the Maine Department of Transportation said voters need to approve the bond in November for the DOT to avoid delays in the 2014 construction season. That would require a special legislative session — and approval by lawmakers — this month.

Democratic leaders in the State House have said they will not call a special session in August and instead will take up all the bonds — including the governor’s — when the Senate reconvenes in September for confirmation hearings. That would put the ballot question to voters in June 2014.

At the close of the last session, Bernhardt told lawmakers that going to voters in June would not be disruptive, but he now says it would cause a seven-month delay in the 2014 project schedule. Democrats on the Appropriations Committee wanted to speak with him, or a representative, during Tuesday’s meeting to see why that assessment had changed. Despite an invitation, no one from MDOT was present during the committee’s Tuesday work session.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, Senate chairwoman of Appropriations, admonished the agency for the snub.

“I have to share my disappointment in a department of that size not being able to send anyone to discuss this,” she said. “This committee has great work to do, and it’s important to the people of Maine … If we can’t get people here to address our questions, we are somewhat compromised.”

Bernhardt did send a letter to members of the committee, who received it moments before the meeting began Tuesday. In the letter, he writes that the timing of the bond is important because his department needs “funding certainty” for its annual three-year project plans.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, said it was disingenuous for Democrats to make hay about the lack of Bernhardt’s availability.

“On June 12, Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note testified before that very same committee with regard to the transportation bond,” she said. “The questions have been answered and this political rhetoric is unnecessary.”

Democrats have questioned the sudden sense of urgency with which LePage and other Republicans have lobbied for the bond’s immediate passage.

“We’re talking about a three-year plan,” said House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham. “There should not be surprises like this when it comes to a plan that is so rigorous. There’s no need for this kind of erratic and unpredictable behavior.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of Appropriations, said “politics is at play” in the governor’s push, and in Bernhardt’s seemingly changing deadline.

“When we last sat around this [table], all of us, Republicans and Democrats, agreed together that we would come together in September, that we would spend August and September putting together a thoughtful, strategic bond package,” she said. “There’s something else going on here.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have decried the Democrats’ plan to tie the transportation bond to other bond issues, including ones that may not be as popular with GOP lawmakers.

“This is a game of politics [Democrats] have been playing for four months now. It’s highly unfortunate, because we do have transportation needs that are desperately needed,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

Fredette said Republicans in the House will not agree to a special session in September.

“If we can’t get something done in August, so that we can get it through in November, it’s very unlikely that we take any action on this until January,” Fredette said.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, also said Senate Republicans would be unlikely to agree to convene in September, and would opt instead to take up the bond in January, when the next regular legislative session begins. Either scenario would result in a June referendum, he said.

“What is the point of calling us into session in September if there’s no chance of getting the bond proposal on the November ballot?” he said in a statement.

LePage has offered to meet with Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, on Wednesday morning, Bennett said shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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