Sen. Rotundo: Bridge to refine the river bond

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After decades of abuse and neglect, Maine’s rivers have been targeted by a coalition of environmental advocates and lawmakers for a $25 million economic development bond. Sen. Peggy Rotundo is the lead sponsor of the bond in the Legislature.

She is also the Senate chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. (As sponsor, Rotundo said she must recuse herself from responding to testimony in her committee regarding the bond bill, but can vote on its recommendation to the Legislature.)

During a recent news conference, a stream of speakers from Bath to Skowhegan babbled Brookings and biology in support of the bond. John Marsh, a former Maine Warden Service colonel, spoke of when some industrial rivers were so clogged with toilet paper, scuba gear was rendered useless and even the most hardened divers retched.

Maine’s rivers are suffering, and their power as an economic engine is equal to the kilowatts now harnessed in hydroelectricity. Yet with 30,000 miles of rivers in Maine, the $25 million bond – even if leveraged against other sources, as planned – is likely too small to have a measurable impact.

Communities can conjure plenty of products for these funds. Skowhegan, for example, has longed to exhume a fallen railroad bridge in the Kennebec River to perhaps clear the waters for construction of a whitewater kayak park.

The park would compete with the popular rafting companies that populate The Forks, which take tourists for whitewater adventures on the Kennebec, Dead and Penobscot rivers.

On a placid surface, it sounds like a fine idea. Sent through the churning whitewater of Maine’s politics, however, its flaws become clear, as the rush to embrace optimistic aspects of the excellent Brookings Institution report runs counter to other, more pessimistic, appraisals of the state.

Bond proponents cite Brookings’ recommendations to invest in the outdoors, and point to “riverfront economic development” as emblematic of this effort.

A recent assessment by the Maine Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, however, says the state’s economic development strategy is fissured, with taxpayer funds flowing freely through cracks in oversight.

This is where Rotundo comes in.

The Lewiston lawmaker has invited OPEGA before the Appropriations Committee to utilize the agency’s financial acumen. It’s a laudable move, as OPEGA’s reports have cast light on poor practices, but long after they could have been prevented.

There’s room for OPEGA’s recommendations in the river bond, by making it a shining example of accountability in economic development policy. Any concerns about the bond’s efficacy could be stemmed if each dollar is tracked, accounted, and reviewed to ensure its wise expense.

Rotundo is the bridge for this river plan, as her chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee and sponsorship of the the bond can bring OPEGA, and its recommendations, into the forefront, and provide the stringent oversight of a Maine economic development policy that the taxpayers deserve.

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