April 26, 2012

Spending battle puts state bonding at risk

Projects to fix roads, expand colleges and more may not be funded – and related jobs lost – if LePage doesn't get his DHHS cuts

By STEVE MISTLER State House Bureau

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.

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Martin's Point Bridge: Replacement cited by transit experts as a top priority

Press Herald file photos

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Cummings Road in South Portland: Estimated cost of reconstruction: $1.7 million

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Bar Mills Bridge over Saco River: Estimated cost of replacement: $7.8 million

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Portland Fish Exchange: Estimated cost of repairs, efficiency upgrades and expansion to increase fish landings: $5 million

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