AUGUSTA – After a year in which the state approved no borrowing for public projects, lawmakers Thursday began considering more than two dozen bond proposals totaling nearly $600 million.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee began two days of public hearings on the borrowing proposals, which call for projects ranging from highway and rail line improvements to global seafood marketing. The largest calls for $200 million to build a privately operated container port on Sears Island.
Last year, in an effort to chip away at the state’s debt, the Legislature decided not to ask voters to approve any borrowing. While lawmakers are considering borrowing proposals in this session, there’s no guarantee that any will pass.
According to the state Treasurer’s Office, Maine had $520 million in general obligation bond debt as of June 30. Tax-supported debt per capita is $865, much lower than the national median of $1,066, the treasury says.
The Appropriations Committee’s House Chairman, Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, said the committee will review all of the proposals and consult with legislative leaders to determine whether any new borrowing is warranted.
If any bond package emerges, it will be much smaller than the total now proposed, Flood said.
Any bond package would likely appear in no more than three or four bills, Flood said, and the committee will let the governor take the lead if he decides to submit a package.
Gov. Paul LePage is not considering a bond package but “the door’s slightly ajar,” said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.
“We still have a significant chunk of the budget to deal with. The governor believes we need to be in a healthy fiscal state before we take on more debt,” Bennett said.
Democrats have called for a bond package, which they say would create jobs and help revitalize the state’s economy.
The nonprofit GrowSmart Maine testified Thursday in favor of four of the bills before the committee, saying the state would benefit from the strategic use of bonding for economic development, research, infrastructure improvements and conservation.
A $100 million proposal would provide funding for transportation and land protection, and for the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System to train people who want careers in the tourism industry.
Among the other groups submitting testimony was the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which favors $1 million in bonds to complete the renovation of the wharf and bulkhead at its site in Portland Harbor.