March 11, 2016

BDN Maine

By Michael Sheperd

Gov. Paul LePage has been under pressure to release $15 million in bonds to build housing for elderly Mainers. The bonds were approved by nearly 70 percent of voters in 2015, but LePage hasn’t said that he’ll authorize their release, giving a new reason why at a Thursday town hall in Bath.


The bonds are intended for the construction of new energy-efficient, affordable homes for low-income seniors and the adapting of existing structures. According to language in last year’s referendum, the $15 million bond would be matched by an estimated $22.6 million in private and other funds.


LePage, who we know isn’t fond of borrowing money, has not been consistent about his reasons for opposing the bonds. A day after the election, he said selling the senior housing bond would hurt the state’s credit rating.


Then, during a previous town hall meeting he hosted in Waldoboro, he said he won’t release the bonds until the Maine State House Authority and the Legislature come up with a specific plan to use the money.


That was just a couple of weeks after the Maine State Housing Authority wrote a letter to LePage seeking his assurance that if they go through the process of planning for the housing projects, that he’d follow up by making the money available.


Now LePage is singing another refrain. He was asked about the housing bonds Thursday night at his town hall meeting in Bath and he said he doesn’t want to give money to developers “and the state of Maine never gets paid back.”


LePage said he wants the private sector to pay for the housing units and for the bond money to be used to create telemedicine units within each project, which he hopes will be staffed by Maine’s hospitals.


“If I can use that money to put a telemedicine unit in each housing project and a nurse in that unit, then the elderly that live in that unit would all be about 100 yards away from that nurse or physician’s assistant,” he said. “I could get the hospitals to join in by providing the personnel.”


This is not the concept that voters approved at the polls last year by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, told the Bangor Daily News recently that LePage keeps moving the target.


“It’s a whole layer of conversation that doesn’t need to happen and gives him an excuse to change what the people approved,” Payne said.


Payne and other housing advocates, such as Jason Bird of the Penquis Community Action Project, have been at the State House in recent days advocating for the release of the bonds.


“We’re trying to educate legislators about exactly where things are and that they may need to step up to make sure this moves forward in the future,” Bird said.


These bonds can be sold any time in the next five years — or later if the Legislature extends them — which means if LePage continues to hold them up, another governor could be in office by the time they are sold. — Christopher Cousins

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