AUGUSTA, Maine — The issuance of $15 million in voter-approved bonds to build affordable senior citizen housing in Maine will likely have to wait at least until Gov. Paul LePage leaves office following a House vote Thursday to uphold his veto of a bill designed to release the bond money.
The bill in question, LD 832, would eliminate LePage’s approval for selling the bonds so the projects could move forward. LePage argued in his veto letter that the bill would remove crucial safeguards around the issuance of all bonds in rough economic times, though his contention that the bill would affect all past and current bonds is not supported by the bill’s language.
“This is a major departure from our current bonding process that must be carefully considered,” wrote LePage.
The bond in question was approved by more than 69 percent of voters in a 2015 referendum. It called for the funding to be spent on building 200 energy-efficient homes for low-income seniors and conducting weatherization projects at 100 homes of low-income seniors. The money would be matched by $22.6 million from other sources.
LePage quickly voiced opposition to selling the bonds but his reasons changed over time. They ranged from concerns about the state’s credit rating to his contention that the bonds would be an inappropriate windfall for developers to his argument that the housing projects should include telemedicine services. LePage has stated repeatedly in public forums that the bonds will not be released while he is governor.
The bond bill was proposed by former Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick, who was one of LePage’s biggest political foes in the Legislature and who sued the governor for causing him to be fired from a charter school job in June 2015.
The Senate supported the original bill 26-8, which was the same margin by which that body overrode LePage’s veto on Wednesday. The House originally voted 85-57 in favor of the bill and sustained LePage’s veto 89-58 with most of the Republicans supporting the veto. That sum failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required to override a veto.
“This bill was critical for ensuring that the executive branch recognize that it is time we provide our seniors with safe, accessible and affordable housing and I am disappointed in today’s result,” said House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, in a written statement.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, leveled fierce criticism at LePage.
“His contempt for the voters of our state and callous disregard for the desperate housing needs of our seniors is outrageous,” said Payne in a written statement.
Rob Poindexter, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, summarized Fredette’s stance this way:
“We believe it is irresponsible to simply cut the governor out of the process,” wrote Poindexter. “We also have serious questions about the constitutionality of this bill, which are laid out in the governor’s veto message.”
Though there seems to be little hope for the bonds to be issued before LePage leaves office in 2019, it’s possible that the next governor could reverse the decision. Voter-approved bonds are valid for five years following the election, which in this case would be in 2020.