AUGUSTA – Some top Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature agree on one of the hot issues around the capital: whether the governor should be able to hold up voter-approved bonds for improvement projects and economic development.
The lawmakers are out of step with Gov. Paul LePage.
“I’m not picking a fight with anyone,” said Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, the sponsor of a bipartisan bill that could curtail a governor’s authority to hold up bonds. “But if people are looking for a fight, this is an issue they can fight on.”
The proposal, backed by some Republicans, to limit the governor’s authority on bonds isn’t the only sign of policy disagreements with the Republican governor.
One key Republican lawmaker, for example, has sponsored a bill to boost revenue sharing to cities and towns, something LePage has proposed eliminating for the next two years.
The bonding disagreement was the latest rift to come to light in a new round of bills made public Thursday.
LePage has used his executive power to delay funding from voter-approved bonds by not authorizing the borrowing for projects, including more than $64 million that voters approved in November.
Keschl’s bill, co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, and Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, suggests specific situations for when the state’s treasurer can hold up funds in a voter-approved bond. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, and Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, also signed on.
But not all Republicans have joined in.
House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, who said he hasn’t reviewed the bill, said he would oppose an effort to restrict the executive branch’s power to issue bonds. He said he supports a governor’s authority to make final borrowing decisions.
“Just because you’ve been approved for a loan doesn’t necessarily mean you want to take it out,” he said.
Under Keschl’s bill, voter-approved bonds would have to be issued unless the borrowing would hurt the state’s credit rating, a delay in issuing bonds could bring better interest rates, or other funds were available for programs.
Keschl said his bill is not aimed at LePage, but at achieving his goal of “good governance” and a proper balance of power between the governor and the Legislature.
LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said she would not comment on the bill because she had not seen it.
“This has nothing to do with Gov. LePage,” Katz said. “But when a legislature has passed a bond by a two-thirds majority in both houses and the people of the state have said they agree in an election, there ought to be some significant limitation on the power of one person to say no.”
As with most things in the State House, however, it does have something to do with LePage.
LePage has highlighted the governor’s authority to not sign off on financial orders to borrow money. He initially said he would wait until the state’s financial picture improved. This month, he used the bond issue to negotiate with lawmakers.
The administration proposed a pathway to releasing the bonds, saying lawmakers must agree to pay the state’s Medicaid debt to hospitals, first by borrowing and then by using money from a renegotiated liquor contract to cover the cost.
In this legislative session, 33 general fund bonds have been proposed — essentially a list of legislators’ hopes and dreams. Possible categories this year include borrowing to pay for building a new state archives facility, weatherizing homes, improving roads, funding higher education and ensuring clean water.
LePage hasn’t come out against borrowing, although he opposed the four measures on the 2012 ballot, all of which passed.
“Bonds aren’t the sole solution that are going to create the jobs we need,” said Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman. “It’s very easy to spend money, but you run out of money before you run out of ideas.”
Revenue sharing also is separating LePage and some legislative Republicans.
Katz, the Republican Senate leader, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, have proposed similar bills to mandate that the state give 5 percent of revenue to municipalities in sharing agreements.
The state has taken $44 million in revenue-sharing money for this fiscal year to balance its budget, according to the Maine Municipal Association.
LePage, meanwhile, wants to take revenue sharing out of the next two-year budget as a temporary measure to save the state money. He has called it a difficult decision, and his office has challenged lawmakers to find alternatives.
While the leaders of both parties agree that revenue sharing should go to cities and towns, they don’t agree on the political implications of Republicans breaking ranks to support revenue sharing.
The Democratic Senate president said it’s because the governor is out of step with his party.
“He is a leader — the second-ranking leader in the Republican Senate,” Alfond said of Katz and his revenue sharing proposal. “There is a schism that’s happening.”
Katz, on the other hand, chalks it up to a political system that’s working, not animosity between the governor and legislative Republicans like him. Revenue sharing is no partisan issue, he said.
“I caution people not to read too much into Democrats and Republicans signing onto the same bills,” he said. “It’s a sign that we’re trying to do what people sent us here to do, which is to try to work together.”
This story was updated at 9:35 a.m. Feb. 1 to refer to Tom Saviello as a senator.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 10:43 a.m., Feb. 1, 2013, to state that Maine has taken $44 million in revenue-sharing money for this fiscal year to balance its budget, according to the Maine Municipal Association.