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New State Treasurer Opposes Governor's Freeze of Bond Funds
01/07/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins
Neria Douglass, Maine State Treasurer

Traditionally, the swearing in of Maine's so-called Constitutional Officers isn't much of a big deal. But this year the event could mark the beginning of some new challenges for Republican Governor Paul Lepage. LePage has two years left in his first term, and state's new Treasurer, Secretary of State and Attorney General are all Democrats, who said they plan to emphasize some of their own priorities.

As she addressed a packed hall of lawmakers and supporters in the Maine House, newly sworn Maine State Treasurer Neria Douglass made it clear she intends to chart a very different course than that of her Republican predecessor Bruce Poliquin. He was a reliable champion of Gov. Paul LePage's freeze on state bonding, but Douglass said she takes a different view.

"I believe that the bonds that were approved by the voters of Maine should be issued," Douglass said.

Over the last two years, GOVERNOR LePage has frequently cited the Legislature's failure to cure the state's fiscal ills as a primary reason to oppose bonding and he is still refusing To issue new bonds. Douglass said that without the boost that bonds provide, it is difficult to maintain the state's transportation infrastructure, meet higher education goals and ensure environmental standards.

"All of these create not only job opportunities while either repairing or erecting new buildings is going on, but they also provide infrastructure that our people depend on and we're certainly at a historic lows as far as interest rates go and we're going to continue to be there for just a little while longer...after that we don't know," Douglass said. "So this is the time."

"The reason I haven't gone to bonds is not because I'm holding anybody hostage," said LePage at a chamber event in Bangor last month.

In that address, LePage vowed that he would not support bonding until the state pays Maine's hospitals nearly a half-billion dollars in money owed for Medicaid patients.

"The rating agencies told us if you come to the bond market without having dealt with the hospital issue, you're going to get hit hard on our credit rating," LePage said.

But Douglass argues that hospital debt is only one of several aspects that bond rating agencies review in determining the state's credit rating and that other indicators of Maine's economy hold promise.

"I believe that we can only improve if we look at the future as containing many possibilities," Douglass said. "That certainly doesn't mean that we can be reckless with our money, we need to be very careful but you cannot get a future if you don't invest in your future."

LePage administered the oath of office to Douglass, incoming Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, and incoming Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. Like Douglass, Mills and Dunlap are replacing Republicans who were mostly aligned with the administration on issues ranging from national health care to voter identification policies. Dunlap said IN his previous terms as Secretary of State, he forged a reputation for fairness and promoting policies that champion democracy. He said his relationship with the governor remains an open question.

"It depends on the governor," Dunlap said. "Because I'm certainly willing to work with anybody. I've done it my entire political career, both when I was in the Legislature and when I was in office before. I was always very willing to work with Republicans and I'm happy to work with this governor. But that's going to be up to him."

Former Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider supported LePage on such policies as amending the state's Medicaid plan and opposing the federal Affordable Care Act. Janet Mills, who now begins her second term as AG, said she has a broader vision of her responsibilities.

"This means representing all the people, not one party or the other, not carrying the banner for one administration or another and I take that responsibility seriously," Mills said.

One other officer, Polar Buckley, was also sworn in as state auditor succeeding Neria Douglass, she assumes the position of state treasurer.

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