The 124th Legislature could go down in history as a shining example of two political parties working together to face a fiscal crisis. Last year, lawmakers cut $500 million from a two-year budget, and followed it up with a $310 million cut this year.

The budget-balancing bill passed by a two-thirds vote, with vital programs maintained and no new taxes levied. It could not have been accomplished without strong leadership and a spirit of compromise.

The same is not the case for the last piece of business before the Legislature, an $85 million bond package that passed the House but failed to get the two-thirds vote needed in the Senate to go out to the voters. Both camps have hardened positions and accuse the other of not being willing to negotiate. They have one more chance to get something done on Monday.

NOT JUST NUMBERS

Partisans can save this stalemate for a campaign issue, or they can work to reach a compromise. We think they should try one more time and put together a bond package that can pass.

The question of how much Maine can afford to borrow is not just a fiscal question. Politics also matter.

A straight financial analysis shows that Maine’s debt level is fairly low in comparison with other states’, and new borrowing would coincide with other bonds being paid back, leaving debt payments essentially flat. The state, therefore, can afford to borrow something. The question is how much?

That’s where the politics comes in. Last week’s vote in the Senate clearly shows that the answer is not $85 million. Republican lawmakers rightly point out that the next budget already has a $100 million shortfall built in, and as federal stimulus funds expire, the next Legislature should not be saddled with spending like debt service that can’t be cut.

It is up to legislative leadership to come up with a smaller number that can get the two-thirds support needed for passage.

One way to do that would be to focus this round of borrowing on transportation projects that will increase economic activity and promote long-term job growth.

First on the list should be the $17 million purchase of 240 miles of rail line in Aroostook County, a lifeline for 22 companies in northern Maine. A meeting Thursday in Bangor with federal rail authorities showed that there is a future for the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway as a public/private partnership with federal support, if the state acts first and secures the track.

If it is abandoned, Maine can expect to see 36,000 more heavy trucks on its roads, adding $3.5 million to highway maintenance costs and causing an estimated 200 accidents a year.

Higher transportation costs for the rail line’s customers would likely result in job losses in an already troubled part of the state. Putting the money aside now would give the state the ability to lead the process to save this important link.

Other rail and highway projects would give Maine a chance to update its infrastructure and attract private- sector investment as the economy recovers. Port projects, like the “shovel ready” deep-water berth in Portland, promise to boost both industrial and tourist activities.

A slimmer bond would have to drop some of the projects that, however worthy, don’t have the same immediate impact. Offshore wind development, which is a decade away from implementation, would get $5 million under the current bond package.

REALISM NEEDED

Unraveling the package has risks. People who have already signed on and voted for the $85 million bond package may change their votes if a important project for their district is not in the final version. But members will have to recognize the political reality they face. As constituted, this package does not appear to have the votes it needs to pass, so it makes sense to see if a smaller package would. Something would clearly be better than nothing.

Leaders have one more chance to put together a package that will get the political support needed to pass. They should not let this extraordinary session end on such a sour note.