Gov. Paul LePage (right foreground) listens while Maine Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt speaks about the transportation bond proposal.
The governor's transportation bond package would provide a $254 million cash infusion to the state's aging infrastructure. Roads, bridges and other transportation needs would be addressed by the borrowing plan.
But LePage repeated his demand for the Democratically-controlled Legislature to pass his hospital debt repayment plan as a condition for him to release any borrowing proposals - specifically the bond proposals approved by voters in 2010 and last year.
"People say, 'Why you are doing it? You're holding it hostage.' Yeah, I'll admit it," LePage said. "It's the only way I can get anything done upstairs, is you've got to threaten them. They won't get it done unless I force it. And if I release those bonds today, hospitals won't get paid this year - and that's a fact."
The freewheeling, 8 a.m. press conference in the governor's cabinet room demonstrated his intent to use bonding as an economic development tool, but also his commitment to see that the state pays its share of $454 million in Medicaid payments owed to hospitals.
LePage was not interested in talking about the details of either his plan, or a competing measure from Democrats. He says the issue is less about how the hospitals are repaid, and more about when.
"I want it today, I've got the pen now, I'm ready to use it, it's a brand new pen I just got out of the case - it's the new fifth technology Parker pen, it's great," LePage said. "If you can keep the bars open from 6 a.m. 'til 9 a.m., if we can pass concealed weapon laws in 24 hours, dammit we ought to be able to pay the hospitals off."
LePage also used the opportunity to explain why he allowed several bills to become law this week without his signature, even though he had vowed to veto all bills until the hospitals are paid.
"Well, quite frankly, that's an error on my part, and I'll tell you why: The bills came down and no one alerted me that they were down here until the 19th, which was the day they had to go back up," LePage said. "I decided that it was best to just let them go, because I was the one that was not ready to veto. And I will tell you: Fool me once, shame on me. Let's do it a second time and see what happens."
Democratic leaders say they were largely unfazed by the governor's remarks. Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe.
"I would agree with the governor, we also want action and we'd like the governor to stop playing politics, and it's time that he actually signs the bonds that are at his desk, so that we can put people back to work now," McCabe said.
Senate Majority Seth Goodall, the author of the competing measure to LePage's hospital payback plan, says he won't be rushed into bad decision-making.
"The notion that we're not working hard and not trying to get it done is just false," Goodall says. "Democrats are committed to paying back the hospitals and we will. We have a date certain, by no later than Sept. 30. The governor has no date certain to pay back the hospitals. We told the committee it's a priority, work extremely hard on it and they have already scheduled the hearings and they'll continue to do so. If we rush this as we did in 2003, we could get it wrong again. That's in no one's best interest. We will not allow that to happen."
At the Maine Better Transportation Association, Maria Fuentes says her members were excited about the governor's transportation bond proposal, which she hopes will be passed by two-thirds of the House and Senate so it can be put on the November ballot.
Photo by A.J. Higgins.