April 7, 2016

By A.J. Higgins


Maine Gov. Paul LePage is refusing to authorize funding for a $15 million senior housing bond approved by Maine voters last fall.


LePage said Wednesday night that there are problems with the bond and that unless its language is corrected under a new Legislature, he will not release the bond in his remaining two years in office.


LePage has never liked the senior housing bond. He campaigned against the ballot measure last fall, but it went on to garner nearly 70 percent of the vote. And despite that overwhelming measure of support, LePage told an audience at a town-meeting-style event in Orono that no one should expect to see him act on the voters’ wishes anytime soon.


He was asked directly by a member of the audience when the senior housing bonds would be released.


“Not while I’m governor and I’ll tell you why,” LePage said.


He said the bonds were pitched to voters as being designated for senior housing, but he said there are no guarantees for reliably affordable housing.


LePage said because the developers do not need to put up much equity in order to trigger the release of the money, they would be the real beneficiaries under the bond language.


“The problem with the bond is that it was designed in a rush, I had made recommendations, they chose not to — they’re passed and they’re out there,” he said. “I don’t have the conscience to take $15 million and make a few people millionaires overnight because that’s what that bond does, and until it’s fixed or until the next governor comes in, I can’t do anything with them.”


Anticipating that LePage might stall the bond’s approval, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves introduced a bill that would direct the housing bond be issued with or without the governor’s approval. The measure faced strong resistance in the House but passed on a majority vote.


On Wednesday, the measure went to the Senate, where majority Republicans killed the bill in a near party-line vote. Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling said nothing has happened to change the view of House GOP members who will continue to oppose the measure in support of LePage.


“He has five years to release them, so he uses his fiduciary responsibility to make wise decisions, and if he doesn’t think now’s the right time, then now’s not the right time,” Espling said.


With no Republican buy-in, Eves conceded that any effort to try and satisfy the wishes of the voters now or in the near future is problaby futile.


“Ultimately, it’s not going to be going forward,” Eves said. “Again, everybody that is elected to do their job, they have to go back and talk to their constituents, the seniors who are back in their communities, and tell them why.”


For the Maine chapter of AARP, which supports the bond, this is a serious setback. Lori Parham, AARP Maine state director, said thousands of Maine seniors need affordable housing now.


“We hear from members across the state that they are looking for a less-expensive option,” Parham said. “We hear from folks on a regular basis who are at a point where they can no longer afford their home they’re in and they’re looking at homelessness, and this was a bipartisan measure and the people have spoken.”


LePage said he might be willing to reconsider the bond next January, with the arrival of legislative leaders who might be more inclined to make the needed changes.


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