Often, it’s the little things that begin all the trouble. The little thing here was Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to withhold funding for the Communities for Maine’s Future program, a $3.5 million bond issue approved by voters in June 2010.

The program was designed, deep in the recession, to jump-start the construction industry and allow small towns to reclaim historic buildings at the heart of downtown. Things were going fine, money was disbursed — and LePage shut down the program by refusing to sign financial orders.

Even George Gervais, the commissioner administering the program, couldn’t explain what was going on. LePage simply decided to cut spending. That he’d targeted a program specifically approved by voters meant nothing to him.

From that bad seed much damage has been done to state programs Mainers enthusiastically support. The biggest casualty has been the Land for Maine’s Program, initiated by a spectacularly successful $35 million bond issue in 1986, which has since become the most popular and effective land conservation program Maine has ever seen — a national model.

The two programs seem to have little in common. Perhaps it’s the “Maine’s Future” part that galls LePage. He seems bent on taking Maine back before land conservation existed, back before community redevelopment, back before Maine had anything but road and jails — programs he sometimes views with favor.

This nonsense should have stopped long ago. Too many people waited, expecting LePage to start behaving rationally, or at least with respect for the law and the voters. He hasn’t, and apparently won’t.

The rest is escalation and bad faith. After scuttling the Communities for Maine’s Future program — which was, eventually, restored — LePage decided to shut down all bond issues until he got his way on his particular method to for pay hospitals’ Medicaid charges.

Bills in the 2013 legislative session would have removed the governor’s bonding signature requirement, a mere formality that never granted any governor the power LePage claims, but they were abandoned after he got his way on Medicaid and stated, in writing, he’d release all bond funding.

He lied. Yes, he did. The LMF bonds, approved overwhelmingly in 2010 and 2012, remained unsigned, and LePage decided to re-hostage, releasing them only if the Legislature approved cutting a lot more timber on public lands.

In the private sector, this is called “leverage,” and can make rough sense when two private parties are wrangling. It makes no sense in the public sector. We don’t pit Medicaid against LMF. All public programs are worthy, and no one can whimsically decide to fund one and not the other.

But then Paul LePage has never understood the government he’s charged with leading. When one legislator finally said, “No” — Sen. Roger Katz, the Augusta Republican who pressed ahead with the bonding bill that should have been enacted two years earlier — LePage professed shock. He told reporters Katz was on “a witch hunt,” and had no idea why.

As often with LePage, criticisms he applies to others apply perfectly to himself. Katz is asking LePage to do his job and keep faith with the voters. It’s LePage who’s on a witch hunt, and has given no even plausible reason for destroying the Land for Maine’s Future program.

Not content with starving the program, he’s shut it down — ordering his commissioners to stop attending meetings, denying a quorum. At least we think that’s what happened; none of them has actually said so.

Now, it’s gut check time. Those facilitating and enabling LePage’s outrageous conduct must decide what they will do.

That includes Ken Fredette, the House Republican leader who pressured six members to switch from yes to no on Katz’s bill to uphold LePage’s veto. Fredette insists “there’s a solution” to the problem, but after three years hasn’t said what it is.

It also includes Chandler Woodcock and Walt Whitcomb, two commissioners now boycotting the LMF meetings. Both are old political hands — Woodcock a state senator and 2006 Republican nominee for governor, Whitcomb a former legislator who guided the merger of Agriculture and Conservation into the agency he now heads. Neither has had anything but praise for LMF, and if they’re boycotting because LePage would otherwise fire them, they should have the decency to say.

In January, the Legislature will resume debate on bringing LMF back to life. Fredette, Woodcock and Whitcomb may believe they’re doing what they have to, but they’re wrong. No job is worth selling your soul. Lincoln’s words about the Civil War are apt: “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor.”

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]


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