Role reversal in Maine over taking on debt

For a governor who started out as a cash-and-carry kind of guy, Gov. Paul LePage is now weirdly willing to rack up some big-time debt.

The governor started his first term firmly opposed to bonding, even insisting that the bonding by colleges and hospitals be approved by voters.

The Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority had bonded $2 billion since it was created in 1972, all without a public vote and all without a single default.

OK, we thought, the governor is a real stickler for public approval. Got it.

In April of 2012, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature ignored the governor and agreed to put a five-part bond issue before voters, similar to what previous legislatures have done.

The governor let four of the five bond proposals go to voters without his signature, but vetoed a $20 million bond for research and development, adding that he would personally vote against all the bonding proposals at the polls.

Now was not the time to incur debt, he said, with the state facing a more than $900 million budget gap.

OK, we thought, the governor, being a former businessman, really, really hates debt.

Voters were not of like mind, however, enthusiastically supporting three of the bonds, those for airports and ports, drinking water facilities and land conservation. The transportation bond passed with 73 percent of the vote.

The voters had spoken, meeting the governor's criteria. Surely these projects would soon be under way.

But no, the ground had now shifted his stance a bit, and voter approval wasn't enough. Voters may have approved 'em, but LePage said he wasn't going to sign 'em, in effect freezing the money.

"We're broke," the governor explained.

Well, OK, we're broke, we thought, although ignoring the will of the people didn't sit well with us.

Then this year, the governor had a change of heart on bonding. He said he would immediately sign the pending voter-approved bonds, but only if the Legislature approved his plan to issue $186 million in bonds to pay off Maine's hospitals.

That bond would be paid off by future liquor revenue, under the governor's plan, in effect exchanging one type of debt for another, an apparent wash.

OK. Pay the debt, issue the bonds and we're all set. Good idea.

But no, with $105 million in bonds awaiting his signature, the governor on March 8 proposed selling another $100 million in bonds to build a new prison.

Big surprise to all, but the governor said the bond could be paid back by increased efficiency.

So, that would be $105 million in voter-approved bonds awaiting signature, and $100 million in a prison bonds. That's $205 million.

OK. Makes sense. If the Legislature acts, we'll be good to go.

Then, out of the blue, the governor proposed a $100 million transportation bond Thursday to improve the state's roads and bridges.

Holy cow! Now we are up to $305 million in bonds, $105 approved by the Legislature and voters, and $200 million proposed by the governor himself.

So, the governor who said two years ago we were too broke to issue bonds, now feels we are in good enough shape to borrow $305 million.

Have things improved that much?

Actually, no. This year the state is facing a $850 million budget gap, but there is now so much less to cut from.

So much less, in fact, that the governor's budget calls for eliminating revenue sharing to Maine's communities for two years. Plus it proposes skipping a multi-million-dollar equipment refund for Maine businesses for one year.

Wow. That sounds like a bigger crisis than we had with the last budget.

Transportation bonds always pass in Maine, since we all dream of fewer bone-rattling pot holes.

If the governor gets his $100 million transportation bond, projects will be sprinkled all over the state, no doubt improving his image going into an election year. That's a lot of check signings and ribbon cuttings.

Prison bonds? Not so much, and few in the Legislature will want to have the Taj Mahal-for-criminals image attached to them heading into an election year.

So, we will have the strange sight of a Legislature that favored bonding, now reining in the bonding of a governor who said we were broke and adamantly opposed bonding of any sort.

Is this a 180-degree shift, or a 360? Anyways, it's enough to spin heads.

Like they say, politics is the art of the impossible and, we might add, the wildly improbable.

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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 's picture

flip-flop LePage?

Different situation. Obama was up for re-election. Obstructing the implementation of Obamacare that was good politics. Not spending the voter-approved bonds leaving the roads in terrible condition that was good politics too. But the election is over now the Governor can switch sides and take credit for all this spending and the better roads.
Neither the Federal Government nor the State of Maine has a spending crisis. The Feds have a debt problem which is easily solved without savaging Social Security and Medicare (one of the republicans goals while flooding Wall Street with new money which will make some of their friends very rich up until the natural collapse of Wall Street in a repeat of 1929, 2007.)
Its not the level of spending; its the priorities that are different.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Here we go again with more

Here we go again with more big spending. Maine has a structural deficit problem that no one has the slightest idea how to solve. I can tell you that more spending is not the right answer. The only thing I can do is shake my head in disgust.

Message to Governor: STOP THE DAMN SPENDING!!!! If the state cannot support the current level of spending, how in the hell do you think it can handle more spending?

Better living through smaller government.

MARK GRAVEL's picture

Disagree – so you support

Disagree – so you support increasing the $850 Million budget gap?

I guess that explains why there is so much structural deficits as all levels of government. I wonder how long that behavior will last?

Robert Howe's picture

Prison bond

It wasn't too long ago that there were nearly 500 empty beds in the county jails. Why do we need a new prison? Let's take a close look at Senator Tuttle's proposal to bring back parole. It might help reduce the prison population, if that's really a serious problem now.

Robert McQueeney's picture

It's real nice to see

It's real nice to see unbiased reporting going on here.

Jason Theriault's picture

No such thing

No such thing as unbiased reporting.

That said, I see alot of election year politicking here.

Not just with the bonds, but he negotiating on implementing ObamaCare? Hmmmm, kinda a big about face on that issue as well.



Once the governor gets his hospital money, I feel quite sure he will have a change of heart AGAIN about everything else other than the prison bonding.The rest of us will "eat cake" or dirt depending on how you see it. Somehow the phrase "will of the people" just doesn't seem to penetrate his consciousness. He doesn't have to cater to the voter, as he seems to be counting on doing a "hocus pocus" three way split again in the next election.

AL PELLETIER's picture

Pass it on

It looks as if Lepage now wants to give the incoming governor the same kind of debt he inherited from Baldacci. Can't wait to see his next stupid trick when he gets back from Jamaica.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Maybe we'll get lucky..............

On his return from Jamaica, his luggage will make it, but the airline will lose LePage.. Just a happy thought with my lunch...................


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