BANGOR, Maine — The estimated $900 million in federal economic stimulus funds coming to Maine will have a big impact as money is apportioned to cities and towns in the next few years, according to two key legislators Wednesday.
Those cities and towns need to make sure to plan and budget carefully, Maine Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, and House Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, told a group of about 100 Bangor businesspeople Wednesday morning.
And don’t expect any stimulus money to go toward a Bangor civic center and auditorium project, the legislators said.
Mitchell and Raye were the featured speakers at the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce Early Bird Breakfast at the Spectacular Event Center.
Both legislators said they expect both major parties to work together in the 124th Legislature, but the job ahead won’t be easy considering the state and national economic situations.
“The budget, to be honest, overshadows everything this year in the Legislature,” Raye said. “The challenge [is] how we respond to the federal stimulus bill and the money that it is going to bring into the state. We need to make sure we have transparency, a sense of responsibility, so that everybody knows where every dollar is spent.”
The goal, Raye added, is that the money is spent as a true stimulant. Using the money to create new programs and services would be the “wrong direction,” he said, especially when there are jobs to be saved now and current projects which need help.
“I’ve never sensed, in my lifetime, as much anxiety as I’ve sensed right now from people in all walks of life,” Raye said. “There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty, palpable fear, so I think we have a responsibility to make sure as a Legislature we are doing everything we can to make sure that this funding will have the impact that it’s intended to have.”
A Bangor-area arena project probably would not qualify as a stimulus project, the legislators told the group, because the stimulus funds are meant to be mostly prescriptive in nature and targeted to help programs and projects that need to get through hard economic times. Projects are supposed to be shovel-ready for work, and the arena project is far from that point.
State Sen. Joseph Perry, who attended the breakfast, has floated a state bond of $25 million to help fund a new facility. Mitchell said the more regional the project is, the more likely a bond could be considered.
“I am not in the business of raising expectations,” Mitchell said. “Is it a worthy project? Yes. Will we have to fight for it? Yes. But it’s going to be tough and that’s the honest truth.”
Other major issues the Legislature faces include improving the state’s business climate, which Raye said has recently received low national rankings, and the importance of infrastructure improvements to attracting and keeping businesses.
Education will also be a big issue when it comes to the stimulus. Raye said schools need to use their piece of the stimulus money for one-time projects, such as improving energy efficiency.
“We really need to make sure and hope all of our school districts recognize the one-term nature of this funding,” he said.
Mitchell and Raye both said the issue of energy will be explored in the Legislature this year as the state seeks to exploit its natural resources of wind and tidal power.
“Energy seems to be one of the bright spots,” Mitchell said.