AUGUSTA, Maine — In a letter sent to the Democratic legislative leadership Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage said time is running out to reconvene the Legislature and approve sending his proposed $100 million transportation bond to voters this November.
Both parties say they support the transportation bond, but there is disagreement over how quickly it needs to be approved. Democratic legislative leaders say they won’t be rushed and that the transportation bond should be considered at the same time lawmakers weigh the merits of other state borrowing proposals.
LePage said the House and Senate must approve that bond, first introduced in March, this month if it is to appear on the November ballot. Any later, he said, and the state will miss the opportunity to put Mainers to work repairing roads and bridges in the 2014 construction season.
The Legislature can call a special session if majorities of both party caucuses agree to come back to work. Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a news release Thursday that lawmakers would take up the bond — in addition to 31 others carried over from the last session — when the Senate returns to the State House for political appointment confirmations in September.
Alfond and Eves said that still leaves plenty of time to get the bond on a June 2014 ballot. They claim David Bernhardt, commissioner of Maine Department of Transportation, told them that timeframe will not hold up the Department of Transportation planning process.
Bernhardt said in an interview Thursday that while a June referendum had been discussed, it’s not soon enough.
The referendum “truly needs to be in November,” the commissioner said. “We need to know now, because I’ve got a conveyor belt of projects, and that means I need a conveyor belt of money. If I don’t know the money is coming, I’ll have to slow down some of my work.”
LePage said he was “disappointed” in Democratic leaders.
“This bond is supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, yet they continue to delay, as they did with the hospital debt bill,” LePage said. “I had hoped we could get past this pattern of holding up good legislation that we all agree on – it’s not in the best interest of Mainers.”
Democrats say they don’t want to consider the bonds until after the Appropriations Committee hears from state Treasurer Neria Douglass about the status of about $105 million in voter-approved bonds held up by LePage for about two years. The committee meets on Aug. 13.
Citing the need to keep the state’s fiscal house in order, LePage refused to authorize bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012. Democrats said the governor was holding the bonds hostage to secure his policy goals. After a plan was passed in June to pay back outstanding Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals, LePage agreed to release the bonds.
Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage, said the governor has already done what he can to move the bonds along. In a July 24 statement, Douglass said that of the nearly $105 million approved by voters, department heads had requested only about $70 million for fiscal year 2014. That leaves about $35 million on the table, available if necessary, but so far not requested by the various state departments.
Douglass said Thursday that there are still questions about which projects funded by those bonds are moving forward and which aren’t: “From my point of view, things are moving forward, but there is still money on the table,” she said.
Ambiguity about the fate of the full $105 million is one reason Democrats say they don’t want to rush ahead with the governor’s transportation proposal, or any other bonds. The prudent thing to do, Eves said, is to wait until the Appropriations Committee meets next week with Douglass, and consider the 32 tabled bonds to come up with a package to send to voters.
Eves also blasted the governor for creating the delay in the first place.
“The governor sat on these bonds that created jobs, construction season has come and gone, because the governor failed to release the voter-approved bonds,” Eves said. “It is hypocritical for him to have set on those for so long, and at this point encouraging the legislature to act faster than we think is responsible.”
House Republicans are concerned about being forced to vote on a package that would likely include spending opposed by the GOP, rather than voting each bond up or down individually.
“I would like to know — and the people of Maine deserve to know — why Democratic leadership is refusing to allow a clean, up-or-down vote on the transportation bond bill,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
“It’s unfortunate that, once again, a proposal that has bipartisan support is being used by Democrats as a political bargaining chip,” he said. “House Republicans tried to bring the transportation bond bill to a vote at the end of session last month because this kind of brinksmanship is exactly what we feared.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.