Bond package next on agenda at State House

Posted June 09, 2009, at 11:04 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative leaders say they hope to complete their work as early as Friday — several days ahead of schedule — despite a number of hefty items still left on lawmakers’ agenda.

The Legislature’s scheduled adjournment is next Wednesday, but both chambers have been steadily moving through their dockets with a goal of wrapping up by this Friday.

“I’m hoping it’s not 4 o’clock in the morning,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.

Lawmakers have already addressed many of the session’s most controversial issues, including passage of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and a bill to restructure Maine’s tax code by reducing income taxes while broadening the sales tax.

The Legislature also passed a $5.8 billion budget after months of committee work to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from the two-year state spending plan.

But lawmakers have yet to decide the size of a bond package that will likely go before voters later this year and next year and are still working on how to divvy up the limited highway construction and repair budget among the long list of projects.

If those financial questions weren’t weighty enough, lawmakers just received news that revenues in May fell more than $21 million short of projections, forcing additional steps to balance the budget.

“It almost seems like what we are dealing with is defying all of the models,” Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said during a Tuesday meeting of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

On Tuesday, the Baldacci administration presented a plan to address the budget gap by transferring $24 million of reserve funding that had been planned for fiscal year 2010 to cover the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The governor’s plan also identifies an additional $1.6 million in unobligated funds from across state government and taps into an anticipated $2 million balance for fiscal year 2011.

“While it is too early to project our revenue picture for June, the steps I am proposing today will give the state the flexibility to respond quickly to further potential declines,” Gov. John Baldacci said in a statement. “We will continue to keep a close eye on the economy, and we will continue to make adjustments as necessary.”

In an effort to expedite the budget changes, Appropriations Committee members quickly gave their stamp of approval to the governor’s supplemental budget Tuesday after a presentation from administration officials. The bill, which is still being drafted, will likely go before the full Legislature today.

The latest shortfall is certain to affect the coming debate over bonds, however.

Baldacci has proposed more than $300 million in general obligation bonds for transportation, energy conservation, land protection and improvements on the campuses of Maine’s public colleges and universities. Those bonds would be featured on two ballots, the first this November and the remainder in June 2010.

Democratic leaders have been discussing a slightly smaller bond package — likely in the range of $275 million. Republicans, however, have been sending a message that the highest they will support is $150 million.

Sen. Richard Rosen, a Bucksport Republican who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said he and other GOP members would prefer to see a relatively small bond measure on the ballot this November. The Legislature could then take another look at the state’s economic health next January before deciding whether to ask voters to approve more state borrowing, Rosen said.

“The decline in May revenues only reinforces the caution we should use,” Rosen said.

Pingree listed bonds and transportation spending as two of the top outstanding issues, adding that she is confident that the Legislature can work through those and the other remaining items by week’s end.

Other issues still under consideration include:

ä School consolidation: The House and Senate are divided over a bill that would repeal the controversial consolidation mandate.

ä Saltwater fishing licenses: Lawmakers have to decide whether to impose a state-issued license or registry to comply with federal mandates.

ä Tax reform: Although both chambers of the Legislature have passed the tax restructure bill, Baldacci has yet to take action. The governor has expressed concerns about the bill.

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