AUGUSTA — Democratic leaders unveiled a new plan Tuesday to borrow $99 million to pay for road and bridge work, water and sewer repairs, energy efficiency grants for schools, and railroad improvements.

Calling it a “jobs bond,” the Democrats said it’s the latest attempt by the state to spur economic growth in light of the lingering affects of the recession.

Republicans aren’t sold on the idea, but say they are willing to discuss the possibilities.

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro — a gubernatorial candidate — said the recession that began 18 months ago “kicked off a domino effect” that’s made it difficult to recover.

“Across Maine, tens of thousands of people have faced the reality of a tough recession and they want to talk about jobs,” she said at a news conference in the State House Hall of Flags.

The announcement of the plan details caught Republicans by surprise, said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale.

He said while there had been some general discussion about bonds in recent weeks, they had not seen any details until Tuesday.

“I think we really need to digest what they are proposing,” he said.

Conservatives outside the State House were less diplomatic. The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Portland, said the plan would “bury Maine families underneath a greater mountain of public debt.”

“At a time when Maine families and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, Ms. Mitchell wants to further burden our entrepreneurs and future generations with higher debt,” said Tarren Bragdon, chief executive officer for the policy center.

Republican support is necessary because bond proposals require approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.

Gov. John Baldacci has been focused on the budget, but is reviewing projects for a possible bond package proposal of his own that would be released next week, said his spokesman, David Farmer.

Tuesday’s $99 million proposal from Democratic leaders includes:

* $47.5 million for highway reconstruction projects;

* $20 million to purchase the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway;

* $5 million for passenger rail service in the Lewiston-Auburn area;

* $20 million in competitive grants to improve energy efficiency in schools; and

* $6.7 million for waste-water and drinking water upgrades.

The proposed purchase of the railway is in response to a notice filed earlier this year with federal officials that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic plans to abandon 233 miles of track from Madawaska to Millinocket. Service could end as soon as this summer if the state does not intervene, according to the Associated Press.

Legislators from northern Maine said keeping the railroad running is essential to preserving jobs and helping heavy industries transport lumber, wood chips and heating fuels.

“It is imperative that we maintain these tracks,” said Rep. Ken Theriault, D-Madawaska. “Many businesses would lose their competitive edge if they are not able to receive and ship via rail.”

When it comes to road and bridge money, Tim Ouellette of CPM Constructors, of Freeport, said unemployment in the construction industry is near 30 percent in Maine and that additional state bond funds would give them a boost this summer and fall.

“We just recently advertised for a couple of carpenter positions on a bridge in southern Maine and we got over 200 applications,” he said. “There’s people ready to work, looking to work.”

In June 2009, lawmakers agreed on a $150 million bond package to be sent out to voters in three installments. Voters approved a $71 million transportation bond in November 2009. Three other questions are already approved for the June ballot this year: $25 million to stimulate economic development; $33.5 million for weatherization and energy efficiency; and nearly $10.3 million for water and waste water improvements.

Mitchell said if the bond measure is passed through the Legislature, it would be up to lawmakers to convince voters to support all four bonds at referendum.

“It’s incumbent on us to explain to voters that we can afford it, we are very responsible in our borrowing capacity,” she said. “Frankly, it’s something we can’t afford not to do.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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