AUGUSTA – Democratic leaders unveiled a plan Tuesday to borrow $99 million to pay for road and bridge work, water and sewer system repairs, railroad improvements and energy efficiency grants for schools.

Calling it a “jobs bond,” the Democrats said it’s the latest attempt by the state to spur growth as the Maine economy struggles to recover from the recession.

Republicans aren’t sold on the idea, but say they are willing to discuss it.

Conservative groups criticized the plan for increasing public debt.

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell of Vassalboro and House Speaker Hannah Pingree of North Haven announced the long-term borrowing proposal.

Mitchell, a gubernatorial candidate, said the recession that began 26 months ago “kicked off a domino effect” that’s made it difficult to recover.

“Across Maine, tens of thousands of people have faced the reality of a tough recession and they want to talk about jobs,” she said at a news conference in the State House Hall of Flags.

The plan’s details caught Republicans by surprise, said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale. “I think we really need to digest what they are proposing,” he said.

Conservatives outside the State House were less diplomatic. The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Portland, said the plan would “bury Maine families underneath a greater mountain of public debt.”

“At a time when Maine families and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, Ms. Mitchell wants to further burden our entrepreneurs and future generations with higher debt,” said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer for the policy center.

Bond proposals require approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, so some GOP support would be necessary to send the plan to voters.

Gov. John Baldacci is reviewing projects for a possible bond package of his own to be released next week, said his spokesman, David Farmer.

Tuesday’s proposal from Democratic leaders includes:

• $47.5 million for highway reconstruction projects.

• $20 million to purchase northern Maine rail lines owned by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway.

• $5 million for passenger rail service in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

• $20 million in competitive grants to improve energy efficiency in schools.

• $6.7 million for wastewater and drinking water upgrades.

The proposed purchase of the railway stems from a notice filed earlier this year with federal officials that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic plans to abandon 233 miles of track from Madawaska to Millinocket. Service could end as soon as this summer if the state does not intervene, according to The Associated Press.

Legislators from northern Maine said keeping the railroad running is essential to preserving jobs and helping industries transport lumber, wood chips, heating fuels and other products at a reasonable cost.

“It is imperative that we maintain these tracks,” said Rep. Ken Theriault, D-Madawaska. “Many businesses would lose their competitive edge if they are not able to receive and ship via rail.”

Tim Ouellette of CPM Constructors in Freeport said unemployment in the construction industry is near 30 percent in Maine and that the additional state bond funds for bridge and road work would give the industry a boost this summer and fall.

“We just recently advertised for a couple of carpenter positions on a bridge in southern Maine and we got over 200 applications,” he said. “There’s people ready to work, looking to work.”

In June, lawmakers agreed on a $150 million bond package for transportation, “green” energy, education and other projects, to be sent to voters in three installments. Voters approved the first installment, for $71 million, in November.

Three other bond questions are already approved for the June ballot this year: $25 million to stimulate economic development, $33.5 million for weatherization and energy efficiency, and nearly $10.3 million for water and wastewater improvements.

Mitchell said if the Legislature approves placing the latest bond proposal on the ballot, it would be up to lawmakers to convince voters to support all four bonds.

“It’s incumbent on us to explain to voters that we can afford it, we are very responsible in our borrowing capacity,” she said. “Frankly, it’s something we can’t afford not to do.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]