June 6, 2012

Greg Kesich: R&D bond vote a telling sign of LePage's influence

Furious lobbying got just enough support to kill a bill that most lawmakers thought was a good idea.

By Greg Kesich gkesich@pressherald.com
Editorial Page Editor

Something funny happened to the research and development bond on its way to Maine voters this year.

It got vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, despite strong backing from business and education leaders, and was sent back to the Legislature, where it had just passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses a few days earlier.

But after some furious lobbying from the governor, the measure lost just enough support in the House to kill it.

In the big scheme of all that has taken place in the past two years, this may not be the most momentous event of the LePage years, but coming as it did on the last day of the 125th Legislature, it is telling. This goes to show, regardless of the politics of an issue, the governor, more often than not, gets what he wants. It also means that any members of the Legislature who try to distance themselves from LePage in November may find him tough to shake.

Thirteen Republicans flipped their "yes" votes to "no," putting the final tally at 88-53 in favor of an override, six votes short of what was needed to send the bond issue to voters. (The Senate had only one defection and voted to override easily).

And the list of the "newly no" were not just rabid tea partiers who hate all borrowing: The list was headed by House Speaker Bob Nutting of Oakland and Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing of Hampden.

Cushing, who's running for state Senate in a district that would likely have benefited from an influx of high-tech investment, said the governor turned out to be a good persuader.

"He pledged to support R&D, but he felt that it should be incorporated in the budget," Cushing said Tuesday. "It was clear at the executive level that they were not interested in borrowing and felt (overriding this veto) would be sending a bad message."

Nutting says he talked to the governor and changed his vote, but it was members of his caucus – not the governor – who changed his mind. LePage lobbied hard, Nutting said, but he got only 13 people to switch from their initial bond vote, carrying the day with a margin of six.

"The governor didn't swing many votes, and he didn't swing mine," Nutting said Tuesday. "It may be a stretch to say the governor exerted his will, but he certainly tried."

First of all, we should all take a good hard look at the bill that was vetoed.

L.D. 225 would have asked the public to support putting $20 million in a fund that would be awarded in a competitive process to research projects that could at least match Maine's contribution.

The projects would have been used to develop ideas in targeted technologies that include biotech, composites, communications and precision manufacturing. These innovations could have led to commercial developments that could improve agriculture and forestry, creating new products from Maine's historic industries.

The bond was backed by a wide range of business groups, including the biggest regional chambers of commerce and a host of lawmakers from both parties who have supported R&D investment since "Jock" McKernan was governor.

There are a lot of partisan and ideological disputes in Augusta over the size and function of Maine government, but this isn't one of them. This is not Medicaid: Just about everyone has agreed for a long time that this is something that the state should be doing.

What's changed with the arrival of the LePage administration and new state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin is that borrowing money, regardless of the reason, has gotten a bad name.

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