AUGUSTA – The debate over an $85 million bond package is shaping up as the final battle of the legislative session, with last-minute lobbying and both sides counting votes.

Democrats on the Appropriations Committee voted Monday for a package of nearly $70 million for roads, railroads and ports; $5.2 million for water and wastewater projects; $5 million for wind power projects; and $5 million for dental health services.

Democrats want to ask voters to approve $80 million of the package this June — there’s already $68.75 million on the ballot — and save the $5 million dental bond for November.

Republican opponents explained early Tuesday why they won’t support more borrowing. The House is scheduled to debate the bonds bill today, which could be the last day of the legislative session.

GOP support would be needed because bonds require two-thirds legislative approval to be sent to voters. Although Democrats hold majorities of 95-55 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate, they need help from Republicans to reach two-thirds.

“I think it will be very close,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. “On the House side, we only need five or six Republicans to vote for it.”

The bonds would provide $17 million to buy part of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which is to be abandoned this summer. It is seen as a vital economic link for northern Maine businesses.

Two influential Republicans who oppose the bond package are Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, and House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport.

Republicans weeks ago suggested alternatives to borrowing for financing transportation needs, Millett said.

One was a “pay-as-you-go” proposal to take money from the state’s rainy day fund — now about $16 million — to fund certain projects.

The state has a “AA” bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, which is defined as “very strong capacity to meet financial commitments.” Earlier this month, S&P revised the state outlook from “stable” to “negative” because of concerns about the state budget gap.

House Majority Whip Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the state is retiring more debt than it will be assuming this year.

“There’s no better time to put people to work than now,” he said. “We need to create these jobs.”

For Republicans, bond discussions began on a bad note last month when Democrats unexpectedly announced a $99 million bond package, since killed, followed a week later by the governor’s $79 million proposal, which now totals $85 million, Millett said.

Republicans said they were assured last year — after they negotiated a $150 million, three-phase bond package — that this Legislature was done borrowing.

“I just feel the approach they have taken is they are responding to the pressure from their leaders, and we’re responding to what we believe the voters will not tolerate in terms of further borrowing,” Millett said.

Pingree said there was no deal to limit bonds to $150 million. In addition, Maine pays its bonds back in 10 years, a more aggressive schedule than most states, she said.

“We feel that putting money into transportation infrastructure and job creation this summer is absolutely the right thing to do to put people to work, to get our economy going and to rebuild the infrastructure that is also important to our economy,” she said.

 

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