The announcement that Gov. Paul LePage would no longer block bond issues for the Land for Maine’s Future Program was greeted by a range of responses, from celebration to grudging acceptance. It’s certainly not cause for celebration and, as we will see, acceptance isn’t the correct attitude, either.

LePage has badly damaged LMF, as is clear from the “Declaration of Conscience” signed by the five public members of the board, most of whom LePage appointed. It may have been the impending release of that declaration that forced LePage’s unconditional surrender on an issue he has been misusing, with his own unique brand of delusional mendacity, for far too long.

Alternatively, it may have been his realization that a veto of a bill to restore the program he’s been holding hostage since last July would instantly become the first order of business for the new legislative session.

Not only did LePage effectively freeze the only source of funding LMF has — 2010 and 2012 bond issues authorizing $11.5 million in spending, duly approved by two-thirds of the Legislature and ratified by the voters — but he’s attempted to force the board to renege on previous funding commitments, for a week even freezing the operating budget containing $2.2 million.

Realistically, it will take LMF years to recover the stature it long enjoyed as a model state conservation program. Not only were its basic activities disrupted, but the essential partners for each of its conservation easements and land purchases will be more wary in the future.

LePage’s decision to end his obstruction was done with his usual ill-grace. Not only did he not admit that his lengthy campaign to block bond issues was utterly without legal or constitutional foundation, but he continued to lob baseless charges against every lawmaker unwilling to knuckle under to him.

He charged that, because they refused to approve an unconstitutional diversion of funding from the Public Reserved Lands account, lawmakers are content to “watch … poor Mainers freezing in their homes,” and favor “environmental special interests to the detriment of the poor.” This from a governor who insists on denying health care for up to 100,000 low-income Mainers at no expense to state taxpayers.

We already know LePage won’t admit to even the slightest error or misjudgment. The question is what should be done to prevent this from ever happening again.

The Legislature has committed its own errors. Everyone knew the governor’s signature on the bond warrants was a routine formality, and his unprecedented claim he had authority over their issue was faulty. Yet when, in 2013, he promised to “unfreeze” all the bond issues he was blocking, they did nothing when he failed to carry through his promise about LMF.

There will be a temptation to just let things alone, as long as LePage doesn’t change his mind and block the bonds once again. But no one should be fooled. LePage told a town hall event, “They are trying to take my powers away” — powers LePage never had, but simply assumed, after lawmakers caved in to his bluster three years ago.

Now, the Legislature must rectify its own mistake. Once a governor has blocked bond issues without any justification, another governor could be tempted to do so in the future. That’s what happened with government shutdowns engineered by Republicans in Augusta in 1991 and in Washington in 1995 — and again in 2013.

Shutting down government ought to be unthinkable, but has instead become a negotiating tactic. Enormous damage to public confidence in government has been done, and a nihilistic form of anti-government ideology has thrived as a result.

Unfortunately, we can’t legislate against government shutdowns, just hope that their era has passed. But Maine lawmakers can ensure that neither LePage nor any future governor can tear up bond issue agreements on a whim.

The simplest way would be “notwithstanding” language to indicate that the lack of the governor’s signature wouldn’t prevent the state treasurer from issuing bonds. Legal minds in the Legislature can take another approach if it would work better.

This will be a test for Republican House Leader Ken Fredette, who backed LePage unflinchingly on LMF, continuing to insist there was some “solution” other than LePage finally backing down. It’s not reassuring that Fredette’s deputy, Ellie Espling, issued an Orwellian statement praising LePage for “bringing integrity and accountability to the bonding process” when he’s done just the opposite.

This cannot stand. Lawmakers must not adjourn another session without ending this misuse of power, once and for all.

Restoring true integrity will take time. But it must start, without fail, this January.

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

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