Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Treasurer Henry Beck plan to move forward with the sale of $15 million in senior housing bonds that were approved by voters three years ago but have yet to be tapped.

In November 2015, 69 percent of voters endorsed the $15 million borrowing package in order to help pay for construction of 225 units of badly needed senior housing and to weatherize or repair existing buildings. But in the years that followed, then-Gov. Paul LePage offered a range of reasons – some financial, others political – for his refusal to authorize the sale of the bonds.

Mills and Beck – both Democrats – indicated this week that they plan to act on the bonds.

“Governor Mills intends to sign the senior housing bonds in the coming weeks and, moving forward, will authorize the sale of voter-approved bonds in a timely manner,” said Mills spokesman Scott Ogden.

Beck, a former lawmaker who was sworn in Tuesday as state treasurer, said he hopes to use “internal transfers” to free up $500,000 for weatherization and repair projects before the full bond package can be sold. The state typically sells on the bond market twice a year, in the spring and fall.

Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, tried unsuccessfully in personal meetings with LePage to free up the bonds for senior housing. Mills had told the group both during the campaign and after her election that she would release the bonds, Payne said Wednesday.

“We’re thrilled that she is planning to take such action in the coming weeks, especially because thousands of older Mainers are languishing on years-long waiting lists for a safe, affordable place to call home,” said Payne, who also works as development officer for Avesta Housing, a nonprofit affordable-housing provider. “Maine workers stand ready to build the homes that Maine seniors need, and we are grateful that Governor Mills is going to move the process forward.”

There are an estimated $264 million in bonds that have been authorized but have yet to be sold. That figure includes $200 million in bonds approved by Maine voters last November for roads and bridges, wastewater infrastructure, and investments at Maine’s universities and community colleges.

Beck said in an interview Tuesday that he believes the recent changes in state government – notably Mills’ election – would lead to “a new era of cooperation.” In remarks to those gathered to watch the swearing-in ceremonies for constitutional officers, Beck thanked former Treasurer Terry Hayes for ensuring a “smooth transition” and said he was eager to get to work.

“In the coming weeks, my office will be taking steps to prepare quicker deployment of portions of approved bonds through internal transfers where prudent and where possible,” Beck said. “I do believe that Maine government must (be) a size that we can afford, but we cannot afford to ignore pressing problems.”

LePage was conservative in his approach toward bonds – a form of state borrowing – as he sought to bolster the state’s credit rating. But LePage also repeatedly attempted to use bond packages as political leverage in policy fights with state lawmakers, frustrating groups that were banking on bond proceeds to carry out projects.

In the case of the senior housing bonds, LePage offered various reasons for his refusal to authorize the bond sale. Those ranged from concerns about taking on too much state debt, to unsubstantiated allegations that the bond bill was written “to help two or three people become millionaires overnight.”

Others saw political motivations in LePage’s refusal. The original bond bill was sponsored by one of LePage’s top political rivals, former Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick.

In 2017, lawmakers attempted an end run around LePage with a bill that would have allowed the treasurer to sell the senior bonds without LePage’s signature. The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature but was vetoed by LePage, who called it an “unconstitutional power grab by one branch of government to use as a political bludgeon against another branch.” Enough House Republicans sided with LePage to block an attempt to overturn his veto.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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