Friday, December 6, 2013
By EMILY SHAW
Gov. LePage's recent decision to insert himself into the state's bonding process comes as no real surprise, given the governor's frequent and vehement statements about the evils of state and municipal borrowing. However, it does present a bit of a constitutional quandary.
Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher
The state Legislature has an official role in the state's bonding process: two-thirds of both houses must agree to the proposed bonds in order to put them on the ballot.
The citizens of Maine have an official role in the process, since they must authorize the proposed bonds as bond questions in an election.
Maine's treasurer -- who despite his warm relationship with the governor was actually elected to his role by the state Legislature -- is the state authority who issues those bonds.
But where does the governor fit in?
Historically, Maine's governors have certainly advocated for or against particular bond measures. Over time, the financial forms that execute the actual sale of the bonds have evolved a place for the governor's signature. However, this requirement is not in the constitution, and therefore not above Legislature-made law.
Nowhere in the state constitution, in fact, is there any official place for our chief executive to actually decide anything having to do with state bonds.
The governor's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, posited that the timing of when bonds were issued was "up to the governor." Traditionally, this has not been the case. Rather, once Maine's citizens have authorized bonds, their issuance depends on the timing of the project for which they have been authorized.
When a bridge needs repairs, that repair is scheduled by the Department of Transportation and the commissioner lets the state treasurer know that he should issue the bond. What the governor and his spokeswoman are arguing is that those agency decisions are now going to be subsumed under the governor's appointment authority over agency commissioners.
Not unlike the governor's 2011 "gag order" which required all state agency employees to seek his office's permission before speaking to legislators, the letters from the governor's office envision a centralized version of the state agencies in which Gov. LePage -- not the people he presumably chose for their relevant expertise and experience -- is the only real decision-maker in state government.
Exerting a heavy hand over his appointees may be an unofficial power that the governor chooses to exercise. However, the ability to approve or deny authorized bonds is not a formal power of this or any other Maine governor.
Gov. LePage's effort to unilaterally prevent Maine bonds from being issued appears to be a unique one in Maine's history. While the process of getting bonds passed by the Legislature and the voters is certainly a political one, the implementation of those authorized bonds has until now not been a point of political decision-making.
Yet what we are now seeing in state bonding for the first time is, if not a victory of "people over politics," certainly a victory of ideology over politics.
The reason that the governor has decided to prevent bonds from being issued is because he strongly opposes state and municipal borrowing, preferring instead to cut "until it hurts." This belief in the fundamental evil of debt and borrowing is a cornerstone of the governor's economic orientation and it is shared by many of the governor's supporters.
In the past, even fiscally conservative governors have accepted the traditional Keynesian economic approach to recessions and supported some counter-cyclical spending, which is to say that governments should add and not reduce investments during economic hard times. This governor's approach to state borrowing, however, does not seem to allow for variation based on economic context.
Beyond the question of constitutional authority, most political actors would see measures that pass two-thirds of both the Maine House and Senate, plus a majority (and often a large majority) of Maine's electorate, to be a genuine expression of the will of the people and not something to casually disregard.
However, this governor has not shown himself to be overly preoccupied by what people think. As a businessman first and a politician second, he does not have the politician's instinct to make decisions that are palatable to the largest possible audience. Instead, he remains true to achieving his vision of a lean, minimal state based on a tightly managed, vertical organizational model.
While he may not technically have the authority to halt stimulatory, counter-cyclical state spending, it is in his nature to try to assert this power nonetheless.
Because who's going to stop him?
Emily Shaw is an assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville.