Democrats have joined forces with a senior citizens group in trying to bypass Governor Paul LePage, by issuing a voter approved housing bond that right now is stalled at the governor's office.
In November, voters authorized the issuance of $15 million to help build affordable housing for Maine's senior citizens. Backers say there are some 9,000 Mainers over 55 years old who need it, but Governor LePage has yet to act. Now, Democrats say if LePage doesn't float the bond, they will find a way around him to get it done.
"This bond isn't going to solve all of our problems" said House speaker Mark Eves, a Berwick Democrat, he spoke to reporters at statehouse press conference alongside representatives of AARP. "But not to do it is a failure of leadership and stands in the way of what 69 percent of voters said they wanteed to have happen.".
Eves says issuing the bond is a "no-brainer," the need is so high, he says, while interest rates are so low. And he says that in a previous dispute over conservation bonds for the Land for Maine's future program, LePage showed his willingness to go against voters' wishes. So to try to keep that from happening again, Eves has introduced a bill that would direct the $15 million dollar housing bond to be issued with or without the governor's approval.
"It is going around the governor," Eves says. "I want to be clear about that, it is an unusual move. But because of the history of the Land for Maine's future bonds, because of the dire need of those on the wait list right now, because it is a statewide need, we feel it is only our responsibility."
LePage has criticized the housing bond from several angles. Last year, he said it would hurt the state's credit rating; more recently, at a town hall event in Bath, he said the private sector should handle senior housing investment, while public funds would be better used to provide services such as telemedicine facilities.
And in response to the Democrat's bypass effort, LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, says the Governor wants to see a detailed plan from the Legislature about how to spend the funds, before he'd be willing to float the bond.
"The governor is not going to simply put out the money without having a plan in place" says Bennett. "For Speaker Eves to say 'release the bonds today, release the bonds tomorrow, where is the plan?"
And despite long-standing enmity between Eves and LePage, that includes a pending civil suit, Bennett insists there's nothing personal in the governor's position on the housing bond. House Republicans are supporting LePage. House Republican leader Ken Fredette of Newport says that under state law, the governor has years to to release a voter-approved bond. So, Fredette asks, what's the rush?
"The bond was just passed five months ago," says Fredette. "Bonds have a shelf life of five years. Maine State Housing authority hasn't even developed any rules on this."
The measure passed the House on largely partisan vote of 80-to-63. It could face a tougher reception in the Republican-controlled Senate.