August 16, 2013

Our View: State officials should find common ground on bonds

There is too much on which everyone agrees to let a deal on investment fall apart now.

Democrats and Republicans should be able to come to terms on a state infrastructure bond package that could go before the voters as soon as November: They agree on almost all of what should be in it.

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The state’s roads are not the only area of Maine’s infrastructure that calls for investment through responsible bonding.

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What's been cast as a showdown over the governor's transportation bond and Democratic pet projects is really not much of a fight at all. The Democrats want to fix our roads just as much as the governor does, and the state has needs that go beyond transportation. This week's fight over a bond package has been as much about the timing of the vote as the substance of the package.

The question has been whether to hurry to try to get a smaller package of bond questions onto the November ballot or wait until next June for a more comprehensive one. This is not an ideological chasm. If there is substantial bipartisan agreement on what the package should contain, there is no reason to wait.

Politics is what makes this look like a tougher problem than it should be, and when these type of disputes bubble up, it's easy to blame both sides. In this case, however, that would be a mistake.

POLITICS OF BORROWING

Gov. LePage has politicized the issue of state borrowing ever since he took office, minimizing the number of bond questions that went to the voters and sitting on $100 million in voter-approved borrowing that could have been creating jobs in our economy. By waiting, the state has missed an opportunity to take advantage of historically low interest rates that won't come around again unless we live through another global economic collapse. Other states were able to take advantage of those rates, investing in a variety of infrastructure projects.

Suddenly, Gov. LePage has become an advocate of borrowing, so Maine will have to play catch-up.

And we have a lot of catching up to do. Maine has one of the worst rates of job creation in the nation, and our economic growth has lagged behind the nation's. Republicans try to portray Democrats as wasteful spenders, but there are other infrastructure needs that are just as important to our economy as roads and bridges.

The University of Maine System has a $770 million backlog of renovation projects. The Community College System has $140 million in needed capital investments, including $15 million that have been identified as critical. Building on these campuses not only creates short-term construction jobs, but also prepares more Mainers for good-paying jobs in the future.

OTHER NEEDS

These are other state infrastructure needs just as important to our economy as roads, bridges and ports.

An equally strong case can be made for research and development and land conservation, which is important for tourism, the state's biggest industry.

As University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan testified this week, the question shouldn't be between passing a smaller bond issue now or a larger one later, but how we could pass a big bond issue now.

The governor has proposed a $100 million transportation bond. Colgan said the state could borrow as much as $250 million without putting a strain on its ability to pay them back. Political reality will put the final number somewhere in the middle, but if the parties can come to an agreement now, there is no reason to put off a vote.

Because bonds need two-thirds support from both houses of the Legislature to be sent to the voters, bipartisan cooperation is absolutely necessary.

It was encouraging to hear that the governor was meeting with legislative leaders this week, and both sides reported progress.

It would be better news to hear that they have come to a deal and stopped arguing over something on which there is so much on which they already agree.

 

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