Bond package passes in house, rejected by senate

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AUGUSTA — A borrowing package that includes money to preserve a railroad that’s seen as a lifeline to industry in struggling northern Maine was denied final approval by the state Senate late Wednesday.

As lawmakers worked toward the 2010 session’s end, senators debated the $85 million bond package at length before voting 19-16 along party lines for it. But Democrats failed to muster the two-thirds majority they needed to send the bond to voters. The House earlier gave its final approval by a 100-48 vote.

Nearly $80 million would go on the June 8 ballot. The remaining $5 million would be voted on in November.

“This is jobs,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham. “This is our opportunity. This is our time.”

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The bill remained alive as lawmakers decided whether to try to negotiate a compromise on Thursday.

The borrowing package contained $5 million to purchase and upgrade rail lines in the Lewiston-Auburn area and $5 million for the Mountain Division Rail in western Maine. It also would have provided about $35 million in highway reconstruction and maintenance, $7 million for a deep-water pier in Portland, about $5 million in drinking and wastewater treatment facilities and $3.5 million for a dental clinic in York County.

But most prominent in Wednesday’s debate was about $17 million to buy and preserve about 240 miles of railroad track that’s being abandoned in Aroostook County.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has said it plans to abandon its line in the northern third of the state because of fallen revenues from shipments of lumber, plywood, logs and wood chips. Gov. John Baldacci and Democratic lawmakers support the plan to buy the tracks as well as the rest of the proposed bond-finance projects, which they say would create 2,000 jobs in the state.

Some Aroostook Country Republicans, including Rep. Bernard Ayotte of Caswell, also supported the rail proposal.

During the debate, Ayotte compared shutting down the area’s rail line to “taking a major artery out of a body … it would take years to repair the damage.”

Other bond supporters said it was a good time for the state to borrow because interest rates are low and contractors would submit lower bids than they would during better economic times.

“This is the time when the money will get the best leverage,” said Rep. David Van Wie, D-New Gloucester.

 State Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, who had said on Tuesday he would vote against the measure, voted in favor of it during both House votes. He was one of the few House Republicans to do so. State Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, was not present for the vote, though he had said Tuesday he would vote against it.

Opponents pointed out that the state faces a $1 billion shortfall for the budget beginning in mid-2011 and warned against borrowing while state finances are shaky.

“We cannot afford this,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. “There is a time for reckless abandon and there is a time for limits. This is a time for limits.”

Senate Republicans said they agreed with Democrats last year to approve $150 million in bonds to be sent to voters in separate packages. The first $71 million was approved in November. The rest goes before voters this June and November. They also said they offered to renegotiate bonding already passed by the Legislature last year that has yet to be approved by voters, but Democrats refused.

Democrats said no deal was made to avoid a bond issue this year and that no specific compromise was brought forward by Republicans.

The Senate vote failed along party lines.

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