AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday amplified his criticism of the Democratic-controlled Legislature for passing a bill that he claims could hurt the state’s credit rating. LePage said he will submit an emergency measure to avoid such damage.
In a 23-minute press conference, the Republican governor said that L.D. 1762, a bill that prevented a $40 million cut in state aid to municipalities, was irresponsible because it raided the state’s rainy day fund, which is money set aside to cover budget shortfalls or other expenses. LePage, who recently allowed the bill to become law without a veto, has said tapping the fund would damage Maine’s credit rating and make it more costly for the state to borrow money for transportation, economic development and other needs.
He recently suspended the authorization of $33 million worth of bonds already approved by voters and the Legislature for transportation projects, saying the recently enacted municipal aid proposal had forced him to protect the state’s credit rating.
LePage said he’ll submit an emergency bill to replenish the rainy day fund so that he can resume authorizing bonds for transportation and infrastructure projects.
“I never would have imagined that the leadership of the Democratic Party would be as shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible that they would raid the budget stabilization (rainy day fund),” he said. “This is not a slush fund for liberal politicians in an election year to avoid making tough decisions.”
Democrats said the municipal aid bill was necessary to avoid a $40 million cut that would increase property taxes or force towns to make harmful budget cuts. They noted that in 2011 LePage and the Legislature, which was then controlled by Republicans, drew $27 million from the fund as part of the state budget.
Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said LePage was playing politics with the bonds and the Maine economy because he didn’t get his way.
“Here we are one more time having to talk about this because of a governor who … has decided that he’s lost and he’s going to do whatever he can – he’s like a petulant child – to make something happen and cause discontent in this state. I totally disagree with his approach.”
The municipal aid bill became law last week after LePage opted not to veto the proposal.
Asked Tuesday why he didn’t exercise his veto, LePage offered conflicting responses, saying first that he expected Republicans would sustain his veto, then stating later that he didn’t know that Republicans joined Democrats to overwhelmingly support the bill in multiple roll call votes.
“Frankly, I thought they were playing politics,” he said. “I really thought that they were just playing politics. If I vetoed the bill … it would have been sustained by the Republicans and they would have turned and said our governor doesn’t care about the communities, he doesn’t care about property taxes. I didn’t realize that they’d go to the point of legitimately robbing the (rainy day fund). I thought that they’d find some other way.”
L.D. 1762 passed the House 120-17 and the Senate 33-2. The margin of support belied Republican opposition to the bill, with several lawmakers saying they feared a vote against the bill would be used to portray them as not supporting aid to municipalities and used against them in the upcoming election.
When LePage was told that a majority of Republicans supported the bill, he said, “I didn’t realize they did, actually. Republicans voted for this, too? Then, frankly, I hold the entire Legislature responsible. If they did (vote for it), they did an irresponsible move.”
LePage went on to criticize Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick and Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland for not stopping the proposal.
Details of LePage’s emergency proposal are expected to emerge in the coming days. Sawin Millett, the governor’s finance chief, told reporters that he didn’t think the proposal would be controversial and that it wouldn’t affect ongoing deliberations over two proposals to fill budget gaps in the current and next fiscal years.
LePage said he would continue to withhold the bonds if the Legislature doesn’t pass his proposal to replenish the rainy day fund.
Democrats have tried to ease concerns about taking money from the rainy day fund by including a funding mechanism in L.D. 1762 that takes $21 million from an anticipated revenue surplus and immediately replenishing the fund.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: