AUGUSTA, Maine — Democratic lawmakers worked late into the evening Wednesday attempting to cobble together enough votes to pass a controversial borrowing package containing money to preserve the only major rail line serving Aroostook County.
After lengthy negotiations and hard lobbying by northern Maine business leaders, supporters still were several votes short of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate to send the bond package to voters later this year.
The House voted 100-48 just before 9 p.m. Wednesday on the bill, passing it by the slimmest of margins. Not long before, supporters had failed by just three votes to hit the two-thirds majority.
But the bill failed on a vote of 19-16 just before 11 p.m. in the Senate, raising serious doubts about whether Democrats can get the 24 votes needed in that chamber to send the issue to voters. Through a procedural vote, however, Democrats revived the bill only moments later. Its fate remained unclear late Wednesday as lawmakers worked to bring the 2010 legislative session to a close.
One option being discussed around midnight involved adjourning until Monday while leaders of both parties try to hash out a compromise on the bond package. Senate Republicans made clear Wednesday that they would not support an $85 million package.
The Democrat-drafted proposal contains around $35 million for road construction and maintenance, $7 million for a deep-water berth in Portland and more than $5 million for drinking water or wastewater infrastructure projects.
Other proposed projects include $5 million for offshore wind power development, $10 million for rail improvements in Lewiston and western Maine and $5 million for a new dental school and initiatives to expand dental access in rural areas.
But much of Wednesday’s discussion — and behind the scenes negotiations — focused on the rail lines into Aroostook County.
The bond package includes $17 million for the state to purchase the stretch of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway tracks between Millinocket and Madawaska. The state then would lease the day-to-day operations of the railroad to another company
After operating in the red for several years, 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, including Fraser Papers and Louisiana-Pacific.
Northern Maine lawmakers said failure to pass the bond measure would significantly increase shipping costs for those manufacturers and growers, hurting their competitiveness and even threatening the viability of some companies.
“If we don’t have tracks in Maine to support the mills in Maine, the future of those mills are in doubt,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “I ask for your help tonight.”
Other supporters warned that the loss of freight rail would be felt by forest products, agricultural and manufacturing companies throughout the state.
“If you think for one minute that this is only going to affect Aroostook County, you’ve got another thought coming,” said Rep. Herbert Clark, D-Millinocket. “The ripple effect on this is going to be second to none.”
But opponents questioned the wisdom of taking on additional debt while the state continues to struggle financially. Critics also pointed out that the Legislature approved a two-year, $150 million bond package less than one year ago and that some of those bonds have yet to be put to a public vote.
“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.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, acknowledged that the bond package contains many good projects, including repair of a stretch of Route 1 through his district that he described as one of the worst roads in Maine.
“This is very difficult but I feel this would be very fiscally irresponsible for me to support this,” Burns said.
Some critics of the state’s plan to purchase the MMA lines have suggested that another company — or a group of companies that use the line — could step forward to prevent the abandonment. They also suggested that the federal government should help purchase the line.
But Aroostook County lawmakers said that is unrealistic.
“If we don’t do the right thing with this bond package tonight, it is going to be a very, very long drive back to Aroostook County tomorrow because we don’t have a knight on a white horse waiting to come to our rescue,” said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman.