Fate of Maine Voter-Approved Land Bonds in Hands of State Lawmakers

Jul 13, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine lawmakers are preparing for a full day when they reconvene Thursday at the State House. And while the LePage administration is signaling that it won't be returning any vetoed bills that day, there will still be other vetoed legislation to be considered.

Eight vetoed bills are awaiting action by members of the Maine Senate, including a bill that would prevent Gov. Paul LePage from using voter-approved bonds as bargaining chips to extract concessions from the Legislature.

Democratic leaders say the number of bills that became law without the governor's signature grew to 71 over the weekend after Gov. Paul LePage's veto deadline came and went without action. But while the controversy continues over the governor's strategy, Republican Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta, says there's at least one other major battle brewing in the Maine Senate.

This one concerns the governor's veto of a bill that would put an end to LePage's tactic of holding bonds hostage in exchange for legislative concessions. "Once the people have spoken at the ballot box no one - including a governor - ought to have the right to veto that decision," Katz says.

Katz is the sponsor of a bill that was submitted after LePage announced he would not release nearly $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds unless lawmakers agreed to allow him to use state timber revenues to fund a home heating assistance program.  Two years ago LePage used bonds as leverage to get lawmakers to approve payment of the state's hospital Medicaid debt.

Katz's bill would require the governor to release current and future voter-approved bonds immediately, unless there are specific financial reasons approved by the state treasurer that justify the delay.

Although the bill received two-thirds support in the House and Senate, LePage vetoed the measure, saying in a four-page veto message that, among other things, the bill infringes upon the separation of powers between the Legislature and the executive branch. Katz disagrees.

"It's not a separation of powers issue," he says. "This isn't about who controls things, the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. This just reminds us who we all work for, and that's the people of the state of Maine. And once they have spoken, that should be the end of the discussion."

But supporters of the bill are preparing for a last-minute attempt by the governor's office to peel off enough Republican support so that his veto would be sustained.

"We've had a couple of weeks since we were there, and I'm sure that there's lobbying going on on both sides of this," Katz says. "But I hope that, ultimately, that people who cast their vote back then will cast their vote the same way on the veto. This is really a question of who you work for:  Do we work for the chief executive or do we work for our constituents?"

Republicans are under increasing pressure from GOP leaders and the governor's office to sustain the governor's veto, but these same lawmakers are also being pressured by more than 275 organizations associated with the Land For Maine's Future Coalition. Last month, LePage made a reference to concerns of the LMF organization and expressed a desire to investigate the agency. Beth Ahearn is a staffer with Maine Conservation Voters.

"We've heard that there is an ongoing investigation," Ahearn says. "I don't know what kind of legs that has or how far that investigation has gone."

Some supporters also wonder whether the administration may be planning to release the results of an investigation into the conservation program to give Republicans the cover they need to sustain the governor's veto. House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe says he wishes LePage would concentrate on filling the vacancies on the LMF board instead of pursuing an unnecessary investigation.

"So it's disappointing that the governor has chosen to do some sort of investigation of the commission's work rather than to appoint more folks and make sure that the board is full and able to carry out their mission," McCabe says.

Efforts to reach a spokesman for the governor for comment on this story were unsuccessful.