Last November, for the first time in decades, Maine voters had no bond issues to consider after the first year of a legislative session. Whether they have any to vote on this November may well depend on the war of wills shaping up between Gov. Paul LePage and his erstwhile Republican allies.

Although the Legislature is out of session until mid-May, the jockeying is intense. On Thursday evening, the Appropriations Committee backed a bond package that might total $95.6 million. Earlier, the committee got a briefing from bond experts who said even a package twice that large was no sweat.

Maine devotes between 4 percent and 7 percent of the budget to bond repayment, and we’re at the low end now, ready to take advantage of very low interest rates. And since Maine borrows for 10 years, not 20 or 30, as do most other states, it retires bonds rapidly and can afford more.

But that reckons without LePage, whose animus against borrowing prevented even a legislative vote on bonds last year. He hasn’t eased up. Last week, he was repeating his mantras that “the state is broke,” and “we can’t pay our bills.”

One reason the state can’t pay its bills is because, under LePage the Department of Health and Human Services can’t even provide accurate budget figures. That’s the reason for the unprecedented month-long recess in an election year that will leave primary candidates, at best, three weeks before they have to face voters.

LePage is insistent that lawmakers approve his plan for plugging the DHHS deficit – whatever it turns out to be – before he’ll even consider supporting a bond or two.

The governor has it backward. No large business could stay afloat if it postponed all investment decisions until some far-off time when all its bills were paid. Borrowing for long-term needs, whether in business or government, is inescapable.

The meat-and-potatoes of Maine bonds consists of transportation and water and sewer projects – basic infrastructure. As usual, transportation would get the lion’s share of the Appropriations package, $51 million. And it could be bigger.

According to the Maine Better Transportation Association, Maine will have $230 million less to spend on roads and bridges during the current biennium than the last one. And unless there’s a healthy transportation bond issue this fall, the next biennium will be still more dire.

Crumbling water and sewer lines are not quite as visible, but they have equally serious consequences. Many lines are 100 years old, and major breaks occur regularly – in one ironic example, just down the street in Pittsfield from headquarters of the state’s largest construction company, Cianbro. Appropriations says this account should get $7.9 million.

If you don’t get excited about infrastructure, there are jobs to consider. Maine’s construction sector, declining since 2009, shed another 500 jobs in March, while most other states were reviving.

There was also unanimous support for a $20 million R&D bond; research has been a magic word with voters. And the Land for Maine’s Future program, which LePage despises but voters love, would get $5 million.

There the unanimity stops. There was strong, but not unanimous, support for a $11.3 million higher education bond, to which Democrats want to add another $3 million.

In a new wrinkle, the package will comprise five separate bills, instead of the omnibus package used recently. That means the ultimate menu could be quite different, particularly after legislative leaders – who often have pet projects – weigh in.

Still, it’s about as direct a challenge to the governor as we’re likely to see in this session. There’s logic at work.

State spending is obviously not going to turn around employment, but borrowing no money at all for basic construction needs is foolhardy. It’s one reason why Maine was last in personal income growth for 2011, and near the bottom for job creation.

So what’s a legislator to do? Fulfilling the governor’s condition of “paying all the bills” is impossible, so any bond package risks his ire.

In truth, governors have no direct role, though (except LePage) they propose bond packages. It takes two-thirds to get bonds through the Legislature — the same margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

One can predict that, when lawmakers return, the bond package will be set aside until the budget mess is straightened out, and then move forward. June candidates, and even those running in November, will mostly say yes. It will be difficult to explain to voters why there isn’t even a nickel for bonds Maine has been using since 1951.

But knowing LePage, that’s when the fireworks will begin.


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