AUGUSTA – Proposals for the state to borrow money for helipads in rural communities, transit buses, and innovative research and development projects could go to voters in November, following House and Senate votes Wednesday in support of a series of bond bills.

The House and Senate gave initial approval to five bond packages as they worked to wrap up the current session.

“This is one of the keys to growth in the state of Maine,” said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston.

As Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, Rector lobbied fellow lawmakers to support a $20 million bond to fund research and development projects across the state.

Other proposed bonds would go for transportation ($51 million), higher education ($11.3 million), sewer and water projects ($7.92 million) and the Land for Maine’s Future conservation program ($5 million).

As of 10 p.m. Wednesday, the House had given final approval to the bonds for research and development, Land for Maine’s Future, higher education, and water and sewer projects. The transportation bond received strong initial approval in the House, but required more votes by both chambers.

Pending final approval in both chambers, Gov. Paul LePage will likely determine whether the bills go before voters on Nov. 6.

LePage is attending the Republican Governors Association meeting in North Carolina this week and won’t review the bills until he returns from the three-day conference, said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

LePage, who did not support any borrowing last year, has 10 days to consider the bills.

The largest bond would help pay for road and bridge repairs, industrial rail, port improvements in Searsport and Eastport, and other projects.

In the area of research and development, groups would have to bid for money to support renewable energy development, aquaculture, composites, and agriculture and forestry technology.

A separate bond for higher education would support community college expansion, the Maine Maritime Academy and an animal health lab.

Supporters of the Land for Maine’s Future program described the $5 million borrowing request as modest, but important. The program uses the money to conserve land, while preserving access for sportsmen and loggers.

Although the borrowing bills got strong support in both chambers, some lawmakers said the state is not in a position to borrow money.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a former member of the Transportation Committee, said he planned to vote against all of the bonds, even though the money for transportation would help repair roads in rural Maine.

He noted that Maine still owes millions of dollars to hospitals.

“I need to be sure we’re going to pay the bills before going forward,” he said. “We didn’t do a bond issue last year and the sky didn’t fall.”

That prompted Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, to say Maine is responsible when it borrows because it pays back debt in 10 years.

“It was completely reckless for the state of Maine not to bond last year,” she said. “The need for infrastructure improvements was critical.”

Appropriations Committee Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said he and other budget writers were comfortable with a bond package that did not exceed $100 million. The total of the bonds that got initial approval is $95.6 million.

“We do have the ability to service that debt going forward,” Rosen said. “We think this is a reasonable total.”

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said lawmakers should talk to voters about the bonds.

“It’s important we send a unanimous message of how important this bond package is,” he said. 

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]