AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta argued Monday that no governor should have the power to overrule the will of Maine voters when it comes to the release of bond funding.

Katz has made headlines for opposing Republican Gov. Paul LePage on this issue since he authored LD 1378, which would require the governor to issue voter-approved bonds unless one of five specific conditions exist. The bill also eliminates the requirement that the governor sign bonds before the funding can be released.

“I think the principle here is pretty simple: when Maine voters have spoken at the ballot box, no one, including a governor, should have a right to veto their decision,” said Katz during a State and Local Government Committee hearing on Monday. “That’s it.”

LePage has withheld the issuance of bonds on several occasions, including during his first term in order to urge the Legislature to support his plan to repay the state’s Medicaid debt to hospitals and again — right now — in an effort to force lawmakers to use revenue from increased timber harvesting on state lands to fund an energy program favored by the governor.

At stake is about $11.5 million in conservation money approved by voters but blocked by LePage.

John Butera, LePage’s senior economic adviser, said Katz’s bill would erode the governor’s constitutional authority.

The Constitution “implies that there is discretion as to when and if bonds are issued,” said Butera. “The Constitution clearly states that there are times when bonds might not be issued for at least five years. Further, the Constitution clearly envisions a scenario that bonds may not be issued. … LD 1373 is a blatant attempt to usurp the governor’s executive authority and disrupt the balance of power between the legislative and executive branch.”

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, has long been a critic of LePage’s withholding bonds.

“This bill would ensure the will of Maine voters is followed and upheld,” said McCabe.

Among the bonds currently being blocked by LePage are monies to replenish the Land for Maine’s Future program that voters approved by comfortable margins in 2010 and 2012. Those bonds are set to fund more than 30 conservation projects and leverage some $25 million in private investment.

“Many of the projects relying on these bonds are time-sensitive and the governor is jeopardizing them by refusing to release them,” said McCabe. “The administration has made specific commitments to dozens of private landowners who have conducted due diligence, spent money and negotiated in good faith.”

LePage’s reason for withholding the bonds is that he wants to increase harvests of timber on public land and use the money to fund a heating subsidy program. That concept was rejected last year by the Legislature. Some opponents questioned whether public lands should be treated like commercial forests and others warned of the ecological consequences of increased harvests.

The bill will see further debate and votes in the coming weeks.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.