Saturday, March 8, 2014
By BILL DIAMOND Special to the Press Herald
WINDHAM - You won't believe this, but it's true. The governor's new two-year budget calls for borrowing $100 million for renovation and to construct new buildings at the Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham.
The proposal calls for demolishing and replacing eight of the 11 buildings in an effort to increase efficiency and capacity. That's right -- $100 million for a new prison.
I've visited and toured the MCC several times over the years both as the Senate Chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and of the Appropriations (state budget writing) Committee and I agree that renovations would improve efficiencies. But considering the governor's repeated declarations that Maine is in deep financial trouble (see eliminating revenue sharing), this proposal is akin to painting the dining room on the Titanic at 11:40 p.m. April 14, 1912.
The word "bizarre," when describing the sudden appearance of this nugget in the budget, seems fitting until we learn a little-known fact about the strategy for this scheme to borrow $100 million: Voters will be excluded from the process.
That's right. The plan is to go directly to the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority (they can issue bonds without voter approval) and ask them to issue the bonds, thereby side-stepping any scrutiny by the voters.
The only other requirement is for the Legislature to give a two-thirds vote of approval. Why keep the voters out of this process? Because they will say "no" and everyone knows it.
Why all of a sudden is the prison the top priority for bonding? And what happened to the $100 million in bonds that have already been approved by voters and still haven't been issued because "we can't afford to go further in debt," according to the governor?
What will be the cost to borrow an additional $100 million? It depends on the interest rate, but it will be significant and it comes from the general fund probably for the next 20 years.
So when you look more closely at the use of the word "bizarre," it may not be bizarre enough for describing this proposal. I'm thinking a better word might be, peculiar . . . no, weird . . . no, whacky, that's it, whacky!
So let's see what the cost of this $100 million prison brainstorm would be replacing on the budget priority list.
To save the state money, revenue sharing would be totally eliminated for two years under this same budget. Currently, Maine law requires state government to distribute funds to all municipalities on the 20th of each month to assist with local property tax relief. Maine towns and cities have relied on this critical assistance for well over two decades.
In fact, in 1987 the Maine Legislature determined that, "A. The principal problem of financing municipal services is the burden on the property tax; and, B. To stabilize the municipal property tax burden and to aid in financing all municipal services, it is necessary to provide funds from the broad-based taxes of state government."
Clearly the state has acknowledged for decades what we all know, and that is: Property taxes place an undue burden on many local property owners, both residential and business.
However, without warning the new budget calls for a two-year elimination of the much relied upon revenue sharing. No widespread discussions with local officials, legislators, or citizen groups. Peculiar? No, wait -- whacky.
The state treasurer's office has issued early approximations regarding the anticipated 2013 revenue sharing that individual communities might expect. These numbers are only estimates at this point, but they do give an indication of the types of losses towns and cities will face with the elimination of revenue sharing funds.
Some of the projected losses: Windham, nearly $1 million; Yarmouth, over $700,000; Buxton, over $360,000; Standish, nearly $400,000. On and on it goes throughout the state.
So where are we? Oh yes, the state has an approximate $100 million deficit in MaineCare requiring more cuts to DHHS. There is a $35.5 million shortfall in the current budget resulting in proposed cuts to programs like drugs for the elderly. And, of course, the loss of revenue sharing and the resulting hit that will be placed on local property taxes.
So $100 million for a new prison? Bizarre, no wait . . .
Bill Diamond of Windham is a former state senator for Distict 12.