AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday that he’s submitted legislation that will extend the lifespan of $6.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds that are set to expire in November.
Details of the proposal are not yet public, however, the administration said the newly drafted bill will extend the life of the 2010 conservation bonds through June 2016, a seven-month period that is well short of the five-year extension that lawmakers could do with their own bill. It’s also not clear whether the governor’s plan complies with the bond re-authorization process outlined in the Maine Constitution.
The Legislature will take up the governor’s bill when it reconvenes Thursday to vote on several bills, including one that would remove the governor from the bond authorization process altogether.
LePage’s plan to extend the deadline of the bonds follows a revelation Tuesday that $6.5 million in bonds to fund projects in the Land for Maine’s Future program have effectively expired because LePage has twice refused to authorize them.
In 2013, the governor used the bonds as leverage to ensure that lawmakers passed his plan to pay off Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals. The hospital debt was paid off, but LePage didn’t authorize the bonds. This year, he withheld the bonds again in an effort to convince lawmakers to allow more timber harvesting on public land and to use some of the proceeds for home heating initiatives for low-income Mainers.
Lawmakers, frustrated with the governor’s refusal to meet his promise to release the bonds if the hospital debt funding was approved, rejected the timber harvesting scheme. Meanwhile, conservation groups have mounted a campaign to convince lawmakers to back a bill sponsored by state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would remove the governor from the bond authorization process.
Katz’s bill has been vetoed by the governor, and lawmakers will vote to either override or sustain the veto when they return Thursday.
In Maine, state bonds require support from two-thirds of lawmakers and approval from voters. Once bonds are approved by the Legislature and voters, the governor decides when to issue them to the market. They are purchased by investors, who are essentially acting as a bank and loaning money to the state in return for a specified rate of interest. Most bonds typically expire after five years if not issued, unless the time period is extended by lawmakers.
Jeff Romano of the Maine Heritage Coast Trust, a land conservation group, said Wednesday that he questions whether the governor’s proposal is legal under the Constitution, which says lawmakers can vote to extend the life of a bond for five years, after it has expired.
“I don’t know all the details of the governor’s bill,” Romano said. “But my reading of the Maine Constitution is that he can’t do this (until the bonds officially expire).”
Romano said that the governor’s proposal appeared to be an attempt to distract lawmakers from overriding the governor’s veto of Katz’s bill. He added that the proposal was unnecessary because LePage can authorize the bonds at any time and he has refused to do so.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said there were no strings attached to the governor’s bill, but that he wanted lawmakers to further discuss his timber harvesting plan. It’s unclear how that will discussion will take place given that the governor’s proposal is unlikely to receive a public hearing on the last day of the legislative session.
Bennett described the proposal as an “olive branch” to the Legislature and insisted that LePage was not opposed to the Land for Maine’s Future program as has been asserted by his critics.
The LMF program has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state since 1987, through land sales or conservation easements. The majority of those lands were working forest, farmland or commercial waterfront.
The program is financed through bonds approved by voters and requires that all LMF lands provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.
Lawmakers hope to wrap up the legislative session and adjourn Thursday – although the fate of 70 bills introduced and passed during the session may remain unsettled.
Most legislative leaders and Attorney General Janet Mills say the bills have become law because LePage missed his 10-day deadline to veto them. But LePage plans to ask the Maine Supreme Judicial Court – possibly on Thursday – to rule that he still has time to veto the bills because the Legislature adjourned on June 30. Under the Constitution, if the Legislature has adjourned, the governor can submit vetoes three days after they go back into session. Lawmakers contend that they did not adjourn on June 30, but simply recessed with the intent to return and finish their business.