AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s hardball political tactics came under bipartisan criticism Monday from lawmakers considering a bill that would force the governor to sell voter-approved bonds he is using to gain leverage with lawmakers.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced the legislation after LePage — a fellow Repubican — vowed to withhold bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future program unless the Legislature agrees to increase timber harvesting on state-owned land to pay for home heating programs for the poor. As a result, several dozen land conservation projects that were negotiated with the expectation of bond funds are in limbo.

“It is fine to horse-trade with issues, but it should be off-limits to do so with an issue that has been already decided in no uncertain terms by the people,” Katz told members of the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee. “I worry if we allow the chief executive to seize this power, then we set a terrible precedent going forward for every Democrat or Republican who may follow him.”

Katz’s bill, L.D. 1378, would require a governor to issue voter-approved bonds except in five specific instances, such as the debt service on the bonds costing more than the amount originally budgeted or the bonds threatening the state’s credit rating. The bill also would eliminate the requirement that the any bonds carry the governor’s signature.

The LePage administration confirmed in March that the governor was withholding $11.4 million in bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future, or LMF, program as political leverage with lawmakers. The LePage administration wants to increase logging on state-owned lands in order to funnel more money into programs that help low-income Mainers or the elderly convert to more efficient home heating systems.

“I’m absolutely willing to sell those bonds, but let’s help the poor along the way,” LePage said at a town hall-style budget meeting in March.

The tactic has infuriated conservation groups along with some of the governor’s traditional allies, such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

David Trahan is a former Republican state lawmaker and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s current executive director who has worked closely with LePage on numerous issues, including re-writing LMF guidelines to prioritize projects that protect deer wintering areas and brook trout habitat. But on Monday, Trahan said several major projects beneficial to deer, trout and sportsmen threated to be “destroyed” by LePage’s actions.

“We are particularly disturbed by the political rhetoric surrounding this issue as it appears to pit the heating needs of Maine elderly against the conservation of Maine lands and wildlife,” Trahan said. “We also understand that when this governor makes a threat, he will most likely follow through.”

Trahan appeared to be referring to statements that LePage made last week on a radio program when he said Katz “doesn’t like poor people” and called the Augusta Republican “my enemy.”

LePage’s top economic adviser, John Butera, tried unsuccessfully Monday to portray the dispute over the LMF bonds and Katz’s bill as “separate issues.” Butera blasted Katz’s bill as “a blatant attempt to usurp the governor’s executive authority” and a “knee-jerk reaction to the chief executive’s fiscal prudence and management style.”

“This bill amounts to reckless public policy introduced to score political points by putting our state’s finances in jeopardy,” Butera said. “It sets a dangerous precedent. But more importantly, it disrupts the balance of power in government that people expect and deserve.”

However, his statements received a frosty response from some committee members.

Rep. Christopher Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, suggested that many of those harsh criticisms of Katz’s bill could also be applied to the governor’s political tactics. Rep. Roland “Danny” Martin, D-Sinclair, asked Butera whether it was in fact the governor who was “usurping the will of the Maine people?”

“I think that’s just ludicrous, in my opinion,” Martin, the committee co-chair, said of LePage’s decision to link the LMF bonds with his home heating program.

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, described himself as a conservative Republican who likely voted against several of the LMF bond measures.

“Needless to say, these bonds were voted by the people of the state and the people said they wanted them,” Pickett said. “Whether I wanted them or not, I don’t have any way to offset that … we do what the people said.”

Representatives of several conservation groups also testified in support of Katz’s bill and warned lawmakers that the delay in selling bonds is jeopardizing projects funded by bonds that consistently receive more than 60 percent support at the polls.

Jeff Romano with Maine Coast Heritage Trust — one of the state’s largest land conservation organizations — accused LePage of reneging on his earlier pledge to release the LMF money after an earlier dust-up with the Legislature involving bonds.

“I ask you this, is this any way to run state government? Can you imagine a private business operating in this fashion, failing to keep promises and living up to commitments agreed to on paper. When the citizens go to the ballot box and approve bonds — whether they be for LMF, roads or community colleges — that should be the last step in the political process.”

The LMF program has used land sales and conservation easements to help conserve more than 500,000 acres throughout the state since 1987. The majority of those lands were working forest, farmland or commercial waterfront.

The program is financed through bonds approved by voters and requires that all LMF lands provide access to the public for recreational activities such as hiking, hunting or fishing.

Kevin Miller — 791-6312

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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