November 26, 2012

Our View: LePage should issue land conservation bonds

When the people speak in a democracy, the governor's duty is to carry out their wishes.

We all know how a bill becomes a law, but when it comes to bond issues in Maine, there is a new step that's not in the civics text.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage has refused to issue bonds approved by the state's voters, a frustrating situation for the Land for Maine's Future Board. Several land acquisitions are in jeopardy along with the federal matching funds that could expire.

File photo/The Associated Press

First, people come to state government with an idea for a bond, then the Legislature turns it into legal language, debates it and votes.

If it gets more than two-thirds support in both houses, it goes to the governor, who can sign it or veto it. If he vetoes, the Legislature can override with two-thirds votes in both houses.

Then it goes to the voters. If more than half of them say "yes," the bonds are sold and the program is funded, right? Wrong.

These days, there is another step, in which the governor decides if he feels like issuing the bonds and sits on them until he's ready. He doesn't have to honor the voters' opinion; he doesn't have to give a reason. According to Gov. LePage, he can just sit on the bonds until they expire in 2015, although his spokeswoman says he'll probably act sooner.

This is the frustrating situation that the Land for Maine's Future Board faces, and several land acquisitions are in jeopardy along with the federal matching funds that could expire. Board members plan to appeal to the governor, hoping he will relent.

And he should. First, this program is a good use of the state's bonding capacity. Maine is a place rich in natural beauty and unspoiled environments. This is not only a treasure for the people who live here, but also a key feature in the way that the state markets itself to visitors and people who might want to move here.

But the state also has one of the lowest rates of public land ownership in the nation and needs to preserve its assets. It is shortsighted to miss the opportunity to preserve the special places when we can. Especially when that can be done in partnership with the federal government, or with nonprofit land trusts.

But even if this wasn't such a good idea, the governor should issue the bonds, anyway. Bond issues move through the Legislature and many players have a chance to influence them, both in the size of the bond and what the money would be used for. Only the governor has the power to veto the bond before it's sent to the voters.

But the voters should have the last word. Once they say "yes," the governor's role should turn from the decider to the guy who makes it happen. It really shouldn't matter whether he agrees with the voters' decision.

In a democracy, ultimately the people are the boss.


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