Lawmakers weigh costs, benefits of bonds

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AUGUSTA – House Republicans are feeling the pressure from all sides as they consider whether to vote for a proposed $85 million borrowing package that would make investments in highway infrastructure, railroads, wastewater treatment facilities and a dental education clinic.

The Legislature is expected to take up the measure on Wednesday. It also includes money for a deep-water pier in Portland and higher education building renovations. Bond proposals require a two-thirds majority vote and, if approved by lawmakers, are placed on a statewide ballot before Maine voters.

There are 95 Democrats in the Maine House, and the package requires 101 votes to be enacted.

House Democrats and Gov. John Baldacci, also a Democrat, say they fully support the bond proposal and insist that it represents responsible investment and would create nearly 3,000 jobs at a critical time. But House Minority Leader Josh Tardy, R-Newport, and Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, have said the state should not take on more debt at this time.

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The package includes about $35 million for highway reconstruction and maintenance, $5 million for rail investment in Auburn and Lewiston, $5 million for the Mountain Division Rail in Western Maine, and $17 million for a controversial purchase of about 240 miles of track in Aroostook County.

For many Republican lawmakers, the choice pits their conservative roots against business groups that support the projects, but they also want to meet the needs of their constituents.

“I’m walking around with my head in the sky right now because I don’t want to let people down in the business community or in city leadership, but I also don’t want to let my constituents down, that count on me to make good, strong fiscal decisions,” said state Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, who said he plans on voting against the bond measure.

“I don’t want to mortgage my kids’ future because I am so shortsighted that Lewiston-Auburn’s going to get $5 million out of an $85 million package,” Bickford said.

He said the proposal for the state to spend $17 million to buy the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic rail line in northern Maine was causing him “a lot of heartburn.”

“I would vote for it in a heartbeat if that piece wasn’t in it,” he said. “Bailing out a business — but not only that, they don’t even know what they are going to do with it when they get it. That $17 million is just a down payment on what it’s going to cost us to manage that rail.”

Many local Republicans shared Bickford’s view, saying they supported the local portions of the borrowing bill, but not the $17 million for the rail line.

“There are some really good pieces in there, like the Mountain Division Rail,” said state Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel. “If they had that broken away separately, I’d be tempted. The problem is, they lumped the good in with the bad. That’s political.”

State Rep. Michael Beaulieu, R-Auburn, said Tuesday afternoon that he was still undecided.

“I hear from all kinds of people, both for and against,” he said. “If they were taken separately, that would be a great deal. As they are packaged, we’re talking about a lot of money on top of money we’ve already spent.”

State Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, said he was disappointed Democrats were even proposing a bond package this year after negotiating a proposal last year.

“A year ago, the Democrats and the Republicans agreed that $150 million was what we could afford in this biennium,” Knight said. “During this period, the economy has continued to tank. Adding another $85 million at this time is only going to exacerbate the problem.”

In June, Mainers will weigh in on about $70 million in bonds that were approved last year by lawmakers as part of the $150 million package.

Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, said he supported the bond package. He said the state’s debt load was not of concern.

“There are types of government spending that are important in recession times, like investments in infrastructure,” he said. “This is as much about partisan politics as it is about needs. It’s frustrating. This is a balancing act; I understand it. I’ve been up there pounding on the table for fiscal responsibility and no new taxes. But this is not a huge chunk.”

State officials said Maine can afford the added borrowing, thanks to recent steps taken to add money to the rainy day fund and other budget decisions.

At the beginning of fiscal year 2011, the rainy day fund will contain about $14 million, at a minimum, and up to $17 million, depending on the final action of the Legislature, according to Ryan Low, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. It currently contains less than $200,000, he said.

State Treasurer David Lemoine said now is a good time to invest because bonding rates are at historic lows. If lawmakers approved the $85 million borrowing package before them, general bonding obligations would represent about 4 percent of state spending over the next biennium, Lemoine said.

The Senate is also expected to weigh in on the proposal on Wednesday.

rmetzler@sunjournal.com

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