Gov. Paul LePage this week linked his contentious proposal to close an estimated $89 million budget gap in the Department of Health and Human Services with his willingness to send a bond package to voters in the fall.
The governor issued a statement saying he won’t consider signing a state borrowing package until lawmakers address what he calls Maine’s out-of-control welfare spending.
His spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Wednesday that LePage is open to compromise. But his comments and recent actions — including a line-item veto to reinstate cuts to General Assistance that lawmakers had resoundingly rejected — have many concerned that he will pressure lawmakers to commit to his Medicaid reforms, and veto any borrowing package if they don’t.
“I think the governor is using the bond package as leverage over Republicans,” said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. “He’s shown before that he’ll pressure Republicans to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t want to do.”
If no bond package is approved, it will be the first time since 1962 that a biennium will pass in which voters won’t consider borrowing. The consequences surpass the historic novelty, say advocates for a bond deal.
Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, said forgoing bonding would have devastating consequences for Maine roads and bridges, which already are suffering from insufficient state funding. The transit system was cited recently as an impediment to economic growth by the Maine Development Foundation, a group representing business leaders.
Attached to the transportation projects are desperately needed construction jobs, says the Associated General Contractors of Maine.
“The situation is very bleak,” said John O’Dea, spokesman for the trade group. He cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics showing that Maine lost 500 construction jobs from February to March of this year.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said a bond package is vital to the economy. “Every year we don’t bond, we miss an opportunity for job creation,” he said.
Greater Portland has its share of roads and bridges that need repairs, according to the Maine Department of Transportation’s 2012 list of 73 projects that are in design but unfunded. The list includes:
• $7.8 million for a preliminary engineering plan and replacing the Bar Mills bridge between Buxton and Hollis.
• $1.7 million for highway reconstruction on Cummings Road in South Portland.
• $1.2 million to replace the North Elm Bridge in Yarmouth.
Replacement of the Martins Point Bridge between Falmouth and Portland is not on the list, but the bridge was cited recently by the National Transportation Research Group as one of Maine’s top 10 projects that are needed to improve the transit system and increase economic growth.
Ted Talbot, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the state’s transportation needs far surpass available funding. He said the LePage administration is trying to do more with less.
The administration is touting new projects such as the Municipal Partnership Initiative, which creates a funding partnership between towns and the Department of Transportation so that priority projects get completed.
John Melrose, a former transportation commissioner, said the program has helped, but it mostly benefits communities with higher tax bases, which can be called on to float municipal bonds.
“There’s really no option for the rural communities that need a road fixed,” he said.
Lawmakers have indicated that transportation would be favored in a bond package. But other, varied interests also are advocating for borrowing.
The Maine Community College System is seeking a bond to expand its facilities and chip away at its 4,000-student waiting list. Gary Crocker, speaking for the system, told lawmakers this week that the waiting list includes aspiring machinists who could fill an estimated 900 job vacancies statewide.
LePage has cited training for such trades as a priority of his administration. In September, the governor told a group of employers in Augusta that Maine has plenty of jobs, just not enough skilled workers to fill them.
Portland’s legislative delegation is pushing proposals that it says would bolster the economic vitality of the city and the region, including funding to hasten the development of a multi-modal transportation center at Thompson’s Point and money to advance Mayor Michael Brennan’s proposal to encourage interaction between local research and higher-education institutions.
Such projects may be viewed as Portland-centric, but advocates say another — an estimated $5 million bond for the Portland Fish Exchange — could have far-reaching economic effects.
Bert Jongerden, general manager of the exchange, said the proposal includes about $1 million for a new roof on the building and other weather-efficiency upgrades. More important, Jongerden said, is an estimated $4 million to expand permit banking to allow bigger fishing trawlers to fish for extended periods. Jongerden said the permit program is a “life-ring” for the struggling groundfish industry.
Alfond agreed. He said the Legislature should take advantage of record-low interest rates and send a strong borrowing package to voters.
That philosophy runs counter to LePage’s push for debt reduction. Last year, the GOP majority in the Legislature went along with the administration’s no-borrowing directive.
This year, an election year, Republican lawmakers have expressed willingness to negotiate a modest borrowing package. The GOP says its decision to forgo bonding last year has put the state in a better borrowing position.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said the package would likely focus on the traditional bonding needs: transportation, infrastructure and land-banking programs.
Democrats say it’s in Republicans’ self-interest to approve borrowing. Subpar roads and infrastructure, they argue, could jeopardize Republicans’ legislative majority when voters go to the polls in November.
Republicans are also sensitive to the ramifications of removing thousands of Mainers from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, as proposed in LePage’s DHHS budget.
In recent weeks, the GOP has signaled its willingness to craft a bipartisan compromise on the DHHS plan. However, consensus may prove elusive if LePage demands adherence to his original budget plan, which Democrats universally oppose.
Rosen said he and other Republicans still support a “reasonable, responsible” borrowing package. He declined to read into LePage’s comments.
State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: