LEWISTON — Four ballot measures that add up to $75 million in new borrowing for Maine will go before voters in November.
But even if voters approve the borrowing, it's unlikely Republican Gov. Paul LePage will embrace the idea of adding more to the state's debt, his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said Monday.
"He doesn't have a credit-card mentality," Bennett said.
The questions cover a range of proposed construction projects, including sewer and drinking water improvements, community college upgrades, roads and bridge repair, and land and water conservation.
Question 2 would authorize the state to borrow $11.3 million with $7.8 million of that going to build a new plant and animal diagnostic testing facility at the University of Maine.
The university's current diagnostic lab is too small and lacking the capacity to deal with increasing demands of Maine's growing agricultural sector, according to supporters of the bonding project, including John Rebar of the Maine Economic Growth Coalition.
The facility analyzes and identifies insect pests and diseases found in livestock and domestic pets, according to a video produced in support of the bond question.
A number of state agencies and departments, including the Department of Marine Resources, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Center for Disease Control, depend on the the facility for lab testing and analysis.
Maine has added 1,000 new farms over the last 10 years, according to Rebar and testing done by the facility has aided that growing agricultural sector, which was worth about $614 million in 2010, according to Rebar. Testing done at the facility in 2010 also saved the state's potato industry an estimated $26 million from crop loss. Other labs at the facility support the Department of Agriculture's animal welfare programs to help stop and prevent abuse.
Question 3 asks voters to authorize $5 million in borrowing for the purchase of land and conservation easements aimed at protecting fish and wildlife habitat and conserving open farmland. The bond requires a matching amount in private money.
Question 4 presents the largest dollar amount at $51.5 million. The borrowing would be used to match up to $105.6 million in federal funds for road and bridge repair and construction.
Question 5 asks voters to approve borrowing $7.9 million for revolving loans to communities over the next two years for safe-drinking and wastewater treatment facilities. That money would make the state eligible for an additional $39 million in federal matching funds.
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said Monday that she supports the bonding packages and would encourage voters to do the same.
"They are good for Maine's economy and Maine's future," Rotundo said in an email. "Interest rates are at an all-time low, we borrow very conservatively as a state (we pay off bonds in 10, not 20 years, for example), the bonding for infrastructure has a huge federal match, money that comes back to local communities. It reduces property taxes because the costs are not borne solely by the local property taxpayers."
Rotundo, the lead Democrat on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, said this is particularly important to large service center cities such as Lewiston and Auburn.
"If we are serious about economic growth, we need to keep investing in infrastructure and education," Rotundo said. "If we don't continue to invest in our infrastructure now, it will simply cost us more down the road. It will create jobs and help make Maine a state where people will want to live and work."
But Bennett said the state already has debts it is unable to pay and LePage doesn't believe it's fiscally responsible to borrow more. The state already spends $100 million a year on debt service and adding to that seems implausible at this time, Bennett said.
"We already have these general obligation bonds that are outstanding, additionally we owe about $500 million to our hospitals," Bennett said. "These are outstanding bills and we must pay our bills first . . . $75 million is a huge sum of money for our state to take on."
With the state already facing a $750 million state budget shortfall that needs to be addressed by the end of June 2013, convincing the governor to take on more debt would be a tough sell, Bennett said.
"We've got such a deep hole now you can't even see the light when you look up," Bennett said. "We need to show some fiscal restraint."