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
Advocates hit LePage TANF bill in public hearing
It was overshadowed by Democratic leaders’ roll-out of a welfare plan, but LePage’s third proposal to align Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program with federal work participation requirements was criticized by advocates at a public hearing on Thursday.
The bill, sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, would make a host of changes to the program, including getting rid of all “good cause” exemptions for TANF recipients not to take a job except for domestic violence. The bill also proposes raising work requirements for those in the Parents as Scholars program.
LePage has been pushing Democrats to conform to federal requirements because of the threat of millions of dollars in fines for not meeting participation rates, but experts have said it’s unlikely that Maine will ever have to pay them.
But at the hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee, the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy testified that nearly half of Maine’s TANF recipients worked in 2014 and that three-quarters of them live in the 13 of Maine’s 16 counties that have lost net employment since 2007.
Christine Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said in written testimony that “at its core, TANF is a program for poor children” and “raising these kids and families out of poverty should be our number one goal.”
“This bill does not move us closer to that goal,” she said. “To the contrary, it moves us further away.” — Michael Shepherd
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LePage unveils ‘wanted’ posters at town hall in Bath
At LePage’s town hall meeting in Bath on Thursday night, three “wanted” posters were erected outside the Morse High School auditorium.
Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said the posters were produced and paid for by the governor’s office and that there might be more posters like them at future town hall meetings.
The three posters unveiled Thursday featured Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO, a coalition of labor unions, Ben Chin of the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, and Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which often spars with LePage on environmental issues.
The posters immediately drew criticism on Twitter and from Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett, who called the posters “deeply disturbing,” linking the imagery to violence against protesters at rallies for Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, whom LePage has endorsed.
“With the violence we’ve been seeing at Trump rallies, it is imperative for all political leaders to dial down the rhetoric,” said Bartlett in a Thursday night statement. “It is not funny. It is irresponsible and dangerous.” — Christopher Cousins