AUGUSTA, Maine — Housing developers and affordable housing advocates are hoping Maine lawmakers will give their final support to a Republican bill that would release $15 million in bonds for senior housing that voters approved two years ago.
Lawmakers say older residents in the aging state are struggling to find affordable housing as Republican Gov. Paul LePage continues to refuse to release bonds that 69 percent of the voters approved in 2015. LePage says he’s protecting Maine voters and the state’s fiscal health by not releasing the bonds, which would provide funds for new energy-efficient homes, home repair and weatherization programs.
“Our elderly want to see the bonds get into our community,” said Republican Rep. Will Tuell, who described the issue as bipartisan. “It does that. It puts senior housing into rural areas, as well as urban areas.”
The Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Roger Katz, last month. It awaits a vote in the Democratic-controlled House, which meets Tuesday.
Supporters have been waiting weeks for action on the measure, which they call a last-ditch effort to release the bonds while the term-limited governor is in office.
“The governor isn’t breaking the law,” said Greg Payne, coordinator of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. “The Legislature’s acting well within the law as well, doing what he refuses to do. And that is respecting the will of the voters.”
Payne said his group hasn’t found any other governor nationwide who has “taken this kind of approach to voter-approved bonds.”
The group estimates Maine faces a shortage of more than 9,000 affordable homes for older Maine residents, with an expected shortage of 15,000 homes by 2022.
The state Constitution says voter-approved bonds expire after five years, but Katz says the language doesn’t specifically refer to the governor in the bond issuing process.
Katz’s bill would remove wording in state law that requires the state treasurer to sell and issue bonds at the governor’s direction. The bill wouldn’t allow the treasurer to sell the bonds if doing so harms Maine’s credit rating.
The governor claims that the bill usurps his executive authority and that the bonds would harm the state’s credit rating.
“All I’m trying to do is prevent three people from becoming millionaires overnight at the expense of people who are going to have to pay those bonds off,” LePage told reporters in October.
LePage’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment or evidence to support his arguments.
In recent testimony before lawmakers, the governor’s Deputy Counsel Hank Fenton argued that Katz’s bill would in fact subvert the voters’ will by doing away with “LePage’s discretion when it comes to authorizing the bonds.”
He said the state Constitution doesn’t say bonds must be issued immediately.
State Treasurer Terry Hayes, an Independent running for governor, said the bonds wouldn’t damage Maine’s rating, and added: “Simply not doing it seems to fly in the face of the voters’ decision on the bond question.”
Tuell said the governor can’t “pick and choose” which bonds he likes.
LePage for years refused to release $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds, which he tried to use as political leverage to urge lawmakers to allow more timber harvesting on state lands to pay for heating assistance for the poor and elderly. In 2015, LePage said he released $5 million of the bonds. Lawmakers last year reauthorized the $6.5 million remaining in expired bonds.