Cracks show in Republicans’ thin red line

Oh dear, oh dear, just when it is critical that the Legislature pull together to pass a budget, fault lines are appearing all over the State House. In Ring 1, Governor Paul LePage is holding hostage the voter-approved bonds meant to fund Land for Maine’s Future projects.

The bonds may be ransomed if legislators agree to allow timber harvesting on state land in order to fund a heating assistance program. The connection there? There is none. But having been passed in 2010, the bond approval will expire in 2015.

These bonds have been caught in the crossfire before. The last time was over the governor’s insistence on paying off Medicaid debt to hospitals, to which the Legislature agreed in 2013. Nevertheless, the bonds continue to sit, unissued.

Enough is enough, said a faction of Republicans led by Senator Roger Katz of Augusta. Last week, Katz proposed an end-around by way of a bill that would force the governor’s hand by limiting his authority to withhold voter-approved bonds.

Not only is LD 1378 a product of the governor’s own party, it is co-sponsored by four other Republican senators, including Hancock County’s Brian Langley. Three house Republicans joined as co-sponsors, as well as one senate Democrat. The prime co-sponsor is Representative John Martin.

This is one of those moves that goes some distance toward restoring one’s faith in government. It is not fun to buck one’s party. It is a matter of principle. Katz is receiving the brunt of the criticism from Republican colleagues. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette is out in front on that.

He rebuked Katz for “always criticizing conservative Republicans” and putting the focus on “scoring political points.” He called Katz “out of step … with Republican principles.” What principles would those be? Reneging on your word? Defying the will of the voters?

Republicans may not be the first to come to mind when environmental issues are on the table, but the party is not without its own environmentalists, notably Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett. At one time, he served on the board of Maine Conservation Voters and spoke eloquently on land conservation issues as a state senator.

LePage piled on, lumping Katz and his fellow rebels in with “their environmentalist friends,” a low blow for Republicans. He accused Katz of “grandstanding for TV cameras” and forgetting “what a bitter cold winter we just experienced.” The bitter cold winter may have finally broken in most of Maine, but Augusta is firmly locked in its icy grip.

Even as the governor is sitting on the Land for Maine’s Future bonds, one of his budget proposals would borrow $112 million to renovate or create state-owned facilities in order to move state workers out of leased space. The proposal is driven by savings that the administration estimates at $46.4 million over 35 years.

Curiously, the governor wants the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority to issue those bonds. MGFA evolved from the Maine Court Facilities Authority in 1997. It is meant to “assist state government in financing the construction and equipping of facilities by providing access to the tax-exempt bond market.”

The agency has long been a target of the GOP because it has the authority to issue bonds with approval of a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature, but without going to public vote. In 1998, Republicans challenged the use of the MGFA to fund several state projects, even raising questions of its constitutionality, but the proposal passed.

These bonds are another issue over which LePage and Katz disagree. The City of Augusta is a “company town,” providing many services for state government, not the least of which is rental of office space. Katz, mayor of Augusta prior to his legislative service, is calculating the cost to the city if the governor’s proposal goes forward. From his vantage point on the Appropriations Committee, the senator has good field position in this next go-round.

Fear not. All this disharmony still can be resolved. Here to pour oil on the troubled waters is Rep. Lawrence Lockman, Republican from Amherst. Just kidding. He is really lighting a match. In a public posting last weekend, Lockman called the Democrats’ tax reform plan a “raw deal” for Maine. He cited the Dem’s “job-killing legislative agenda” and their “decades-long waterboarding of Maine’s private sector economy” and tagged their agenda as “extremist” and those who support it as “zealots.”

Lockman points specifically to two bills (LDs 1101 and 1217) that he says are part of Democrats’ “relentless assault on the small, independent, family-owned businesses that are the backbone of our rural economy.” He is not wrong. They are dopey. But geez, the Democrats agreed with him and the committee already had unanimously voted down both bills prior to Lockman’s rant. The bills are deceased. So could we skip the inflammatory rhetoric?

The Legislature is entering the most challenging phase of the session. At this point, a call for calm would be much more useful than fanning the flames.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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