AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday that there may be a breakthrough in the stalemate between his administration and Democratic legislative leaders over a state borrowing plan for road and bridge projects and improvements at higher education campuses.
Projects in line for funding include a proposal to extend rail service to the International Marine Terminal on Portland’s waterfront to accommodate a new shipping company. Money also could be used to expand facilities at community colleges, allowing many more students to attend.
The governor, who met with Democratic leaders early Wednesday morning in the office of Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he told leaders that he would support a bond package of no more than $150 million and that the plan must go to voters by November.
Democratic leaders issued a brief statement that confirmed the meeting without indicating that an agreement has been reached, a sign that negotiations are likely continuing.
“We look forward to finding a resolution that can meet the needs of the people of Maine,” said the statement from House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick.
Lawmakers typically negotiate bond proposals as they do the state’s two-year budget, offering little comment until a deal is reached.
However, LePage provided a rough outline of a bond proposal that he would support during a brief interview with reporters Wednesday. He also indicated that his meeting with Democratic leaders was productive, signaling a breakthrough in negotiations that have been politically charged over the past week.
“They’re working on it now,” LePage told reporters Wednesday morning. “They’re working on a package.”
LePage has been pushing his proposal for a $100 million transportation bond to fund roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects right away. Democrats say they support the proposal but want to make sure that bonding for higher education infrastructure, conservation projects and research and development is also included.
The power dynamic in Augusta ensures that both sides will get some of what they want. Although Democrats control the Legislature, they need Republican votes to achieve the two-thirds majority required to send bond proposals to voters, the final arbiter in state borrowing proposals.
Over the past week, a political dust-up has centered on the timing of the transportation bond. LePage insists that the proposal needs to be approved by November so that the Maine Department of Transportation has the flexibility to fund priority projects such as one to extend rail service on the Portland waterfront and secure investment there by Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping company.
LePage said Wednesday that the next round of bonds must support transportation to receive his approval, but he would not say whether it has to include all of his original proposal or most of it.
The governor also indicated that non-transportation borrowing should target infrastructure needs. That may include water and sewer projects, or capital upgrades and additions to the community college and University of Maine systems.
It may also mean that money for land conservation, such as the Land for Maine’s Future, and research and development programs could receive little support from Republicans and the governor.
Many supporters of the latter proposals are strongly aligned with Democrats, meaning Democratic leaders will be under pressure to include borrowing for those causes. However, it will be difficult for Democrats to meet those demands because a number of Republican lawmakers are philosophically opposed to any increase in the state’s debt load.
If a compromise is reached, Democrats could potentially vote out a series of bonds so LePage can call an emergency legislative session to have them enacted and sent to voters.
However, time is running out because of a federal law that requires absentee ballots be made available to military service members 45 days before an election. The deadline for the ballots to be printed and ready is Sept. 20, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
LePage declined to offer many details of the negotiations, saying it was up to legislative leaders to strike a deal. His only requirement, he said, was that the funding go for infrastructure projects and that the total bond not exceed $150 million.
“They’re working that out,” LePage said. “I told them that as long as it’s in the infrastructure base and it’s reasonable, then we’ll look at it.”
LePage said the meeting occurred in response to a request by Democratic leaders.
“You see, I react when I’m asked,” he joked, a reference to his tense relationship with Alfond and Eves. “He (Alfond) called a meeting, I went up. Sure.”
He added, “We’re moving forward and we’re getting some work done.”
The bond package could include funding for the University of Maine. On Tuesday, Ryan Low, representing the university system, furnished lawmakers with a graphic showing the system’s aging facilities, 36 percent of which are more than 50 years old.
“We’re at a point where the projects pick us instead of the other way around,” Low said.
The Maine Community College System has requested a $15 million bond that would allow it to expand facilities and increase enrollment by 2,400 students.
In Cumberland County, the bonding proposals could help pay for a range of projects, from repairing Route 302 in Bridgton and Main Street in Freeport to improving the intersection at Interstate 295 and Forest Avenue in Portland.
The governor’s original transportation bond includes $19 million for multimodal projects, including extending railroad tracks on the Portland waterfront, a crucial piece in the deal with Eimskip, which moved its North American operations to Portland in March.
Eimskip said it moved to Portland after state officials assured the company that Pan Am Railways tracks would be extended about 1,500 feet so freight trains could reach the International Marine Terminal, where Eimskip’s ships dock.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: