April 13, 2010

Bond package worth $58 million gets OK

The plan would borrow for improvements to roads, rail and a deep water pier, and goes to voters in June.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - The Legislature gave final approval to a $57.8 million bond package Monday after Republicans forced Democrats into weekend negotiations by balking at a larger borrowing plan last week.

The package got strong bipartisan support in the Senate -- a 30-5 approval vote -- and enough votes in the House -- a 102-44 roll call -- to surpass the two-thirds majorities it needed to be put to Maine's voters.

The plan, most of which will go on the ballot in June, includes $44.3 million in new borrowing and $13.5 million from bonds that were approved by lawmakers last year but have not yet been before voters.

It includes $24.8 million for highways, $16 million for railroads, $7 million for the Ocean Gateway Deep Water Pier in Portland and other small harbor improvements, $5 million for ocean wind energy, and $5 million for improved dental services.

Gov. John Baldacci signed it into law shortly after the Legislature adjourned for the year, just before 5 p.m. Monday.

The $6.5 million for the deep-water cruise ship berth in Portland Harbor is a decrease from the $8 million proposed by Baldacci in March. Still, the vote was "very good news" for Portland, said Nicole Clegg, the city's director of communications.

With construction prices still low because of the economy, Clegg said $6.5 million may be enough to fund the project. Should it fall short, the city will look toward local bonding or other funding mechanisms to make up the difference, she said. "This is something the city has been working on for years."

The deep-water berth would allow large cruise ships and other vessels to dock in the harbor. For the 2010 cruise ship season, Clegg said, the city expects 70 ships -- twice the number that came two years ago -- with 800,000 passengers.

She said the city would like to complete the berth before the 2011 season, when 36 ships are already scheduled to visit the city.

The package also calls for bonds to help preserve 240 miles of rail line owned by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in Aroostook County. The state would borrow $7 million and take $7 million from its rainy day fund to buy the line. The 20 or so companies that use the line will be asked to chip in $3 million.

The railway has told the federal government that it intends to abandon the line as soon as this summer.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, said the rail line plan is structured so that the state can back out if necessary.

"If money in the bond cannot be put to good use in a sensible and business-like way, the state should walk away from the deal," said Mills, who is a candidate for governor.

A week ago, the Legislature's Appropriations Committee split along party lines on an $85 million bond package that Democrats said would create jobs but Republicans described as too big.

Democrats got just enough votes to get it through the House, but Senate Republicans unanimously rejected it.

Democrats then delayed a final vote, saying they wanted to give people more time to think things over.

During Monday's debate, two Senate Republicans said they were "targeted" during the weekend by phone calls from those who were trying to win their support.

Sen. Gerald Davis, R-Falmouth, said the smaller amount of borrowing meant he could support the bill.

"It is the American tradition to compromise," he said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@centralmaine.com

 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette contributed to this report

She can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: ebouthillette@pressherald.com

 

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