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House gives initial OK to borrowing, but must pick up votes to put bonds on ballot

Posted April 07, 2010, at 1:35 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – House lawmakers voted 94-53 Wednesday morning to give initial support to an $85 million bond package that includes money to preserve an Aroostook County rail line and to pay for road maintenance projects around the state.

But supporters will have pick up additional votes in the House this afternoon in order to garner the two-thirds majority needed for final passage.

The bond package now heads to the Senate, where the initial vote later this afternoon is also expected to be close. The bond measure is one of the few remaining items on lawmakers’ plates as they strive to adjourn the 2010 session either today or Thursday.

The Democratic proposal includes $17 million for the state to purchase the stretch of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway tracks between Millinocket to Madawaska. The state would then lease the day-to-day operations of the railroad to another company.

MMA officials have said they will abandon and likely tear up the tracks unless the state or another entity purchases the line, which serves many of Aroostook County’s largest employers.

The proposed bond package also includes: nearly $35 million for road construction and maintenance projects; $7 million for a deep-water berth in Portland; $5.2 million for drinking water or waste water infrastructure projects; $5 million for offshore wind power development; $10 million for other rail projects; $5 million for a new dentist-training clinic and initiatives to expand dental access in rural areas.

During House debate, supporters predicted the measure will create jobs while preserving positions at the more than 20 companies in northern Maine that depend on freight rail.

“It is truly a package and it is not driven by any single project or constituency,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono. “It is driven by a desire to put people to work and back to work as early as this summer.”

But opponents questioned the wisdom of taking on additional debt while the state continues to struggle financially. Critics said there are also other options to preserve rail service in Aroostook County without the state purchasing the tracks.

“Cash is king, and if the state doesn’t have the revenue to pay the debt service, then we do a disservice to all Mainers if we support more borrowing,” said Rep. Jayne Crosby Giles, R-Belfast.

One moment of levity came moments before the vote was tallied when House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, pressed the lone hold-out in the chamber, Republican Rep. Howard McFadden of Dennysville, for his vote.

“I still don’t know,” McFadden answered, eliciting laughs and cheers from his House colleagues. “How much time do I have, Madame Speaker?”

“We’re all waiting,” Pingree replied.

McFadden ultimately cast his initial vote with the opponents.

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