August 14, 2013

Maine lawmakers wrangle over borrowing for projects

LePage and Republicans push a transportation bond; Democrats want other priorities considered.

By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The political standoff over whether the state should borrow for transportation, education and research and development projects continued Tuesday as the Legislature's budget-writing committee attempted to winnow 30 different bond proposals.

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Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, confers with Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, during a meeting of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee Tuesday in Augusta.

Photo by Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal

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Among them is Gov. Paul LePage's $100 million transportation bond, which includes funding for roads, bridges, ports and rail.

The governor and Republican lawmakers on Tuesday continued to press the Democratic-controlled Legislature to approve the proposal this month so it can go to voters in November.

Democrats continued to insist that all bonds can wait until June to go to voters so lawmakers can negotiate a comprehensive borrowing plan that includes transportation and infrastructure projects in the University of Maine and community college systems, as well as land preservation.

The competing 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 Maine Department of Transportation says the money could also help extend rail service on the Portland waterfront and secure investment there by an Icelandic shipping company.

The political arguments in Augusta, however, have less to do with the merits of such projects than with the timing of a voter referendum and whether a borrowing package should be limited to transportation.

Both parties will have to compromise, as a two-thirds majority is required to bring a bond proposal to voters. The Appropriations Committee must first decide whether to present a borrowing package to the full Legislature.

The battle is rooted in politics, a point underscored Tuesday when the LePage administration rejected requests for department heads to appear before the committee. This left Democrats no chance to publicly question administration officials on the transportation bond and other issues.

Republicans argued Tuesday that the transportation bond can't wait until June because the delay could interrupt the Maine transportation department's work plan for 2014 and 2015. The LePage adminstration also said Tuesday the bond should move forward in case the funds are needed to take over rail lines that could go out of business because of last month's deadly train crash in Quebec.

Democrats hope to use their majority to ensure that non-transportation projects are approved. Money from other, already approved, bonds has yet to be issued, they said.

"The only thing holding this up is politics," said Republican House leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, adding that Democrats could approve the governor's proposal in "15 minutes."

Fredette said Republicans see no need to return in September to vote on a slate of bond proposals if Democrats don't immediately approve the governor's bond plan and allow LePage to call a special legislative session by the end of the week.

Democratic leaders were just as entrenched, and invited guests to testify on the state's borrowing capacity and how infrastructure funding would benefit stakeholders.

Ryan Low, representing the University of Maine, furnished a graphic showing the system's aging facilities, 36 percent of which are over 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 said its $15 million request would allow the enrollment of 2,400 additional students.

Charles Colgan, a former state economist under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and now an associate director with the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research, told lawmakers that they should borrow soon enough to allow the state to take advantage of low interest rates that could save taxpayers an estimated $20 million on a $100 million bond.

(Continued on page 2)

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