Lawmakers approve $150 million bond package

Posted June 13, 2009, at 12:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers wrapped up the 2009 regular session early Saturday morning after negotiating compromises on a $150 million bond package and a highway funding bill.

Bonds and a road repair budget were the two largest sticking points heading into Friday. While deals were worked out between parties by late in the afternoon, it wasn’t until 2:16 a.m. Saturday that Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell gaveled to a close a session that was dominated by budget cuts.

After a rocky, partisan start in the House on Friday morning, the two sides settled on a two-year, $630 million highway fund budget that addresses some road maintenance needs while avoiding possible pink slips for state workers in transportation-related jobs.

One of the most contentious issues involved the transfer of $5 million from the Transportation Capital Improvement Trust Fund to another program to pay for up to 230 miles of repairs to municipal roads and bridges. TransCap, as it is known, is a dedicated fund from a portion of the excise tax to pay for major highway im-provements.

The other major issue involved future funding for road repairs. The compromise defers any decision on how to raise additional revenue to enable the state to make progress toward repairing Maine’s crumbling road system.

All parties agreed that Maine’s poorly maintained roads force costly vehicle repairs, threaten drivers’ safety and ultimately harm economic development. But the sides disagreed on whether increasing the gas tax during a recession was a wise move.

“The present method of relying on the gas tax is not working,” said Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. “Somewhere, somehow we are going to have to come up with a new [source] of funding to give the transportation budget some stability.”

Tensions rose in the Senate for a spell after several senators — frustrated at late changes to the bill — lashed out against the decision to “raid” TransCap funding and at lawmakers’ unwillingness to address the long-term funding needs.

“The game is not done,” responded Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. “We’ll be back soon and we’ll have another shot at it.”

Both the House and the Senate eventually voted unanimously to pass the highway budget just before midnight.

Lawmakers also passed a bill early Saturday morning that asks voters to approve $150 million in general obligation bonds during three elections over the next 18 months. The bonds will pay for highway construction, research and development, environmental protection, infrastructure projects at colleges and universities, and land preservation.

The $150 million compromise is less than half the amount originally sought by Gov. John Baldacci and far less than the $275 million bond package Democrats had discussed in recent days. However, entrenched Republicans threatened to sink the entire bond package unless Democrats limited bonding to $150 million.

“I think we can justify $150 million,” said Rep. Joshua Tardy, the House minority leader from Newport. “The economy and the lag in the economy justifies some investment to try to turn things around.”

The bond proposal contains the following items, among others:

$71.3 million for transportation projects, including highway construction and rail improvements.

$10.3 million for water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

$18 million for weatherization, energy efficiency and research on ocean-based energy.

$9.5 million for the Land for Maine’s Future program and preservation of working waterfront areas.

“To me, it came down to how badly did I think Maine needs a bond package, and the answer is we need it,” said Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat and co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, which endorsed the bond compromise earlier Friday.

Despite some last-minute sparring and significant disagreement on a tax restructuring initiative signed into law on Friday, legislators from both sides of the aisle described the 2009 session as civil and fairly productive.

Final passage of the bond bill was delayed early Saturday when a disagreement emerged within the Republican party over whether Searsport or Eastport should receive more bond money.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan, attempted to change the bond bill to earmark $4.5 million of the $5.75 million slated for port improvements to a dredging project in Searsport. The money would leverage $12.5 million in federal matching funds.

Mills said while the Eastport project was also entirely worthy of funding, the Searsport project was ready to begin and would leverage more federal money, which could help win voter approval for the bond package.

But Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said it would be “nothing short of devastating” to reduce funds that will enable the port at Eastport to attract additional business.

Raye pointed out that the Domtar mill’s recent shutdown also threatened many of the jobs at the port. Domtar has since announced it plans to restart the mill later this month.

“It would enable the port to diversify,” Raye, the Senate minority leader, said in a 2 a.m. floor speech. “For a number of years, the port has served almost exclusively the Domtar mill, so when the mill goes down, the port goes down.”

The Senate rejected Mills’ proposed amendment on an 18-14 vote. Senators then voted unanimously, 32-0, to pass the bond bill.

“We had a different tone this Legislature,” said Sen. Jonathan Courtney, a Sanford Republican and assistant minority leader in the Senate. “We tried hard to work in a bipartisan nature.”

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