LePage halts bond package for hospitals, colleges

Saying it's not OK to use the state's name without approval from voters, Gov. Paul LePage has refused to approve a $31 million bond package for hospitals and colleges.

Without his signature, the bond package can't go forward. That's leaving some, including Franklin Memorial Hospital, scrambling to find other financing.

At issue is the Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority, a little known, quasi-state agency that oversees low-interest loans for nonprofit hospitals and educational institutions.

Through MHHEFA, hospitals and colleges access tax-exempt, low-interest bonds for capital improvements. The agency has operated for 20 years, has sold bonds for 80 different hospitals and colleges without any defaults, Robert Lenna, executive director of MHHEFA, said.

“There is no federal or state statute or regulation that requires state taxpayers to pay any money on these bonds in case they were defaulted,” Lenna said.

If a number of hospitals or colleges got into financial trouble and defaulted, the agency has a reserve fund of $120 million. That fund would make the payments for a year, Lenna said.

Then a request would be made to the Legislature that the reserve fund be resupplied. "There is no legal responsibility that lawmakers vote yes, they just need to vote, Lenna said.

“Bates College has borrowed through this program. All the hospitals in the area, Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary's, have used this program,” Lenna said, adding they save money because they get lower-interest bonds for 30 years.

On today's market with MHHEFA's AA credit rating, they can get a 30-year loan for 5 percent interest. To get a 30-year loan through the banks would cost 7 or 8 percent, he said.

LePage is calling for voter approval.

“As a voter and taxpayer you have only had a say on about $500 million in general obligation bond questions on the ballot” out of Maine's total debt of $12.9 billion, LePage said on his Feb. 19 weekly radio address.

The remainder of those obligations “is the result of promises made but never paid for,” including unfunded pensions, retiree health costs and bonds from “quasi-governmental authorities you have never heard of,” LePage said.

On Tuesday, LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said, “The state Constitution is clear” when it comes to bonds. Taxpayers have a "moral obligation," and no loans larger than $2 million can be issued without voter approval.

“The moral obligation may not mean the state is legally responsible, but if that debt is unpaid, it impacts the state's credit rating,” Demeritt said. “The governor is not saying these projects are not worthy, he's saying the Constitution is clear.”

What drives the lower interest is “Maine's good credit rating,” Demeritt said. “Everybody in the world knows the people of Maine are not going to let this bond go unpaid.”

LePage is willing to work with hospitals and colleges to help them finance a worthy project, Demerit said. “He'd be OK with it if it were approved by voters,” he said. The Treasurer's Office is meeting Wednesday to talk about it.

Rebecca Ryder, president of the Franklin Community Health Network, which includes the Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, said her organization was counting on financing two projects that were in the bond package.

One is a $1.6 million project relocating the Farmington Family Practice to the hospital campus. The other is a $4 million medical office building in Livermore Falls offering primary care, outpatient radiology, physical therapy, behavioral health counseling and women's health services.

“We're moving forward with both projects,” Ryder said Tuesday. “Our finance committee has met and asked us to seek alternative funding,” including talking to banks.

The MHHEFA would have been less costly, she said, adding it's a challenging situation. “We're responding as best we can.”

Also getting no gubernatorial approval for bonds is the Maine State Housing Authority. Executive Director Dale McCormick said her agency is in the same boat. It too uses the state's name to get lower-interest loans to pay for low-income or affordable housing.

Those bonds don't require voter approval, but do need the governor's signature.

“The same rule applies, he is not going to sign” without voter approval, McCormick said.

If Maine voters were asked to approve a bond for housing in Bangor or Lewiston, “it would be a crapshoot” to see if voters statewide would approve.

Like MHHEFA, “we have money to cover” in case of default, McCormick said. The Maine State Housing Authority creates millions of dollars of economic development, she said. “What's so frustrating about this is we're a big player in the Maine economy.”

She added that bonds on the ballots are general obligation, and bonds her agency use are moral obligation.

If the moral obligation bonds were treated as general obligation and approved by voters, voters would become liable, McCormick said.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Jerome Young's picture

I wonder just how many

I wonder just how many "quasi-government agencies" are out there. This agenciy procures these bonds because it incorporates Maine in the name-implicitly and explicitly. I am sure this is a good idea, But, I am glad this has come to into the open. If this agency wants to continue change the constitution. Gov LePage is following our constitution. I do not believe the banks would charge that interest on loans for capital improvements on these NFP's. Thats usually negotiated and competitive. I also wonder if this bonded debt is included in Maine's overall debt when we are rated. I have a feeling we are going to have alot more of these institutions revealed to us which is a good thing.

Amy  McDaniel's picture

Way to go!

I think that whether taxpayers have to pay for these bonds or not we should know about them. Especially since these funds are given or loaned to businesses that are not for porfit and recieve federal and state funds already, which we as taxpayers do pay for. I want to know what these bonds are for and who is responsible for controlling the funds. I think that as taxpayers we should have that right! Sounds to me like people are getting nervous. Maybe they have to do without all perks they have had in the past. I think LaPage is going to bring some transparency back to Maine government and we could use it.

Doreen Sheive's picture

Bonds

I have never been a big supporter of bonds. However, I do realize they are a necessity. I am on the fence as to whether it is a good idea to put these out to voter approval. Does it change whether the bond is based on the state's bond rating (which is not that good right now) or the rating of the quasi governmental agency (which has a better bond rating)? Instead of a knee jerk reaction, this does need to be discussed and properly considered. I hope the Treasurer will be able to give some informed guidance rather than political policy.

Kaileigh Tara's picture

Like we do not have enough problems

Really? Really?
We have enough problems as it is. To add to the expenses of hospitals at this time is incomprehensible.
So now we will be liable for more financial obligations and these huge organizations in our state have to scramble and everything is in limbo while they do so, to what end? To create more panic and fear? More sense of uncertainty?
Talk about creating more government, now more layers to have to deal with getting all this to voters and then oversee the voting and then oversee the bonds... really????

Terry Donald's picture

Wow

Just wow. Another LePage knee jerk reaction to a "problem" that doesn't exist. Not for profits have been using these bonds, which have been written at no cost to taxpayers for over 20 years. And when these bonds are written and projects undertaken, Mainers go to work. The agencies have paid then back, all of them, at no cost to taxpayers. None of defaulted on the bonds, none!
Now capital projects in Livermore and Farmington go on the shelf, and the Mainers who would have worked on those projects can thank the Governer for their lack of work. So go ahead LePage, stop all these projects, force each and every one of these bonds to go before voter approval, nice way to spur business, real nice.

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