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.