AUGUSTA — An $85 million bond package was passed by the House late Wednesday as lawmakers decided on a plan that includes money to buy a rail line in Aroostook County and build a deep-water pier in Portland.

The package passed 100-48 on the final House vote. Late Wednesday night it was sent to the Senate, where its future was uncertain. Putting bond proposals on the state ballot requires support from two-thirds of the legislators present and voting.

Debate in the House focused largely on $17 million in the package to buy more than 230 miles of rail line in Aroostook County. This summer, the owner of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway plans to abandon that section of tracks, which is viewed as a vital economic link for businesses in northern Maine.

Representatives from the area made their case during morning and afternoon debates.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who has played a role in the Legislature since 1964, said Aroostook County has lost a lot over the years and cannot afford to lose more. He said that if the state doesn’t save the rail line, it will be the “death knell of Aroostook County, as far as being able to produce jobs for even our own people.”

Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, asked members to put aside geographical considerations and vote for the bill to avoid seeing the tracks abandoned.

Rail service gives more than 20 businesses in Aroostook County a way to ship goods, he said.

“I would therefore ask the people of southern Maine to understand we need each other,” he said. “Do not the people of southern Maine eat potatoes? Do not the people of southern Maine use timber to build their homes?”

The package includes nearly $70 million for rail and highway improvements and the Ocean Gateway Deep Water Pier in Portland. There’s $5 million for ocean wind energy sites, $5 million for water and wastewater improvements, and $5 million for a new dental clinic and to expand access to dental care statewide.

Borrowing $85 million is projected to cost nearly $19 million in interest, bringing the total cost of the package to almost $104 million, according to the state’s fiscal office.

Such debt is unacceptable, given the state’s current financial picture, said Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford.

He said the state is facing a “cliff” in the next budget cycle that could total more than $1 billion. The state accepted more than $728 million in federal stimulus money that will run out, he said. There’s also an estimated $350 million increase in the retirement system debt, he said.

“You’re adding back $25 million of brand new debt service on the heels of a $1 billion gap and obligating the next five legislatures to honor that obligation,” he said.

In the Senate, Republicans attempted to offer alternatives that included spending less or renegotiating bonds already scheduled to go before voters in June and November. Democrats rejected all of those options.

That got a reaction from Sen. Earle McCormick, R-West Gardiner, who said he and other Republican senators would have been happy to support a smaller bond package.

“I get it, you want $85 million,” he said. “You don’t get it. Don’t blame us, blame yourselves.”

Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, agreed, saying he wanted to support funding for the railroad but the Democratic proposal was too expensive.

On an initial Senate vote, the bond package won a 20-14 majority, but that was short of the two-thirds needed for enactment.

Yet Democrats said the package would keep the state within an acceptable level of borrowing and create jobs over the summer in construction, an industry that needs the help.

“These companies will bid very aggressively,” said Rep. David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester. “I hate to take advantage of them, but this is the time when this money would get the best leverage.”

 

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

scover@centralmaine.com