AUGUSTA, Maine - As the Maine Legislature staggers toward the finish line of a long and contentious session, Gov. Paul LePage and fellow Republicans have fended off an effort to take away his authority to issue voter-approved bonds.
The Maine House refused to override legislation that would have transferred that authority to the state treasurer.
LePage has been trying to leverage the release of $11.5 million in Land For Maine's Future bonds in exchange for access to timber harvesting revenues he would like use for home heating assistance programs. After today's vote, land conservation advocates say they feel betrayed.
The standoff over the bonds has forced lawmakers into some odd positions. Republican Sen. Roger Katz, of Augusta, says he's seen it happen before. "It seems as though recently we all find ourselves in a bad movie, playing roles that we don't want to have to be playing," he says.
In this case, those roles pitted Republicans against Republicans and Republicans against LePage. It forced other GOP lawmakers to choose between voters who approved the LMF bond projects or with the governor who appeared to be willing to let them fail unless he got his way.
Katz had sponsored a bill aimed at ending the stalemate by requiring 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. The bill received two-thirds support in the House and Senate, but LePage vetoed the measure, claiming that it infringed upon the separation of powers between the Legislature and the executive branch.
When the Senate got the chance to override that veto, they did so without debate in a 25-9 vote. But then the veto moved to the Maine House. "I don't support taking powers away from, or having this significant shift from, the chief executive to what might just become a state treasurer that gets elected by this body," said Rep. Ken Fredette.
Fredette, the House GOP leader from Newport, only needed to rally a few fellow Republicans to back LePage and sustain the veto by a vote of 91-52. Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Scarborough Republican, says that the bill was based on several misperceptions - among them, that the governor is bound to issue bonds that have been authorized by the voters.
"After the Legislature votes, first the voters make a decision, and finally under the direction of chief executive who may instruct the treasurer to proceed," Sirocki said. "The voters provide the authority to bond but the borrowing is not a requirement."
Republicans also cited concerns about weakening the governor and placing too much trust in the state treasurer, who is appointed by the Legislature, as other arguments against the Katz bill.
But Democrats say that LePage has no right to tie the authorization of the bonds to political concessions he's sought from the Legislature. Rep. Janice Cooper, a Yarmouth Democrat, urged lawmakers to support the Katz bill, and says there's nothing in the state Constitution that grants bond issuance authority exclusively to the governor.
"The authority to issue general purpose bonds belongs solely to the state and to the people," Cooper says. "It says nothing about the chief executive. There's no specific authority in the Constitution giving bond authority to the governor."
Representatives of the Lepage administration were present in the rear of the House chamber during the vote, and Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, accused the administration of making threats and promises to lawmakers in exchange for sustaining the governor's veto.
"They've been promised that if they don't sustain this veto, they'll lose out on a project that's in their district," McCabe said. "We've also heard that if folks vote to sustain this veto, their project will be expedited."
Adrienne Bennett, the governor's press secretary, challenged McCabe to back up his claims. "We feel that Rep. McCabe has crossed a line," she says, "and the fact of the matter is that Gov. LePage does not adhere to what some Democrats adhere to, and that's quid pro quo. He does not do that and that's certainly was not the case here."
Supporters of the LMF bonds said they were disappointed by the House vote and felt they have been misused by the governor and lawmakers.