AUGUSTA, Maine — A state senator known as a moderate on Tuesday called out Gov. Paul LePage for the “artificially created crisis” about voter-approved conservation bonds worth more than $11 million.
LePage has refused to issue the bonds, jeopardizing more than 30 land preservation projects already approved by Land for Maine’s Future, the agency responsible for the state’s conservation efforts.
The governor said he will only release them if the Legislature approves his bill to increase logging on state-owned land, with the additional revenue dedicated to funding home heating subsidies for low-income Mainers.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the governor’s decision to sit on the bonds rather than releasing them, as voters authorized in both 2010 and 2012, was “unprecedented in the 195-year history of our state.”
“No Republican, including myself, likes being in this situation. We don’t like being in the position of being opposed to something the governor is doing,” Katz said during a news conference. “But the basic premise is clear here: No one, including a governor, ought to have the right to be able to veto what the citizens of Maine do at the ballot box.”
Katz and other critics of the governor’s hardball negotiating tactics have stressed that there is no relation between the bonds and the timber harvesting debate. LePage previously told lawmakers he’d release the conservation funds when they approved his deal to repay Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals — which they did in 2013.
Those critics, including the state’s Democratic lawmakers and conservation and sportsmen’s groups, have increased the volume of their grievances against LePage, and say he’s reneging on the deal he cut with lawmakers two years ago.
Katz unveiled a bill Tuesday that would prevent LePage or any future governor from using bonds as political bargaining chips. The bill would require governors to issue voter-approved bonds within five years of their passage, except in extraordinary circumstances.
Katz has the backing of Democrats and several of his GOP colleagues in the Senate, including Tom Saviello of Wilton, Rod Whittemore of Skowhegan, Brian Langley of Ellsworth and Ronald Collins of York. But he faces stiff opposition not only from the governor but from Republican leaders in the House.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, blasted Katz during a news conference Tuesday and later said Katz needs to step in line “instead of always criticizing conservative Republicans who simply want to move Maine forward.”
“Sen. Katz’s proposal against the governor is consistent with aspects of what he’s done in the past, which is he wants to fight with the governor,” Fredette told reporters. “We want those bonds to be released. But it’s also important that people be warm in the winter. That’s what the governor cares about. He doesn’t care about scoring political points, like Sen. Katz.”
Fredette also said that he didn’t see LePage’s politicking as strong-arming the Legislature into approving the timber harvest plan ( which it already rejected last year), nor did he see it as thwarting the will of the voters.
After all, he said, the voters re-elected LePage even after he used unrelated bonds as leverage in the hospital fight during his first term.
For his part, LePage held firm, issuing a written statement about Katz’s bill, declaring in part that “if [Katz and his co-sponsors] want LMF bonds released, they and their environmentalist friends should support my bill that would direct money from the state’s timber harvest to help Mainers with more affordable heating options for their homes.”
Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, is the sponsor of the timber harvest bill that LePage wants passed before he’ll make good on the voters’ bonds. He said Tuesday that he wouldn’t criticize the governor’s tactics, and he stressed that the bill is a good one, worthy of a fair hearing in the Legislature.
“He’s decided this is important to him, and how he wants to handle it. I’m not going to second-guess him,” Timberlake said. “It’s politics.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.