AUGUSTA, Maine — Most of the attention leading up to the June 8 primaries has been directed toward the gubernatorial race, but Maine voters will also get the final say on a borrowing package that’s emerged in separate chunks from the Legislature.
Mainers will be asked to authorize four bond issues totaling more than $108 million for public works ranging from highways to wind-power development and historic structures.
Questions 2-5 on the June 8 ballot ask voters whether they want to authorize a total of $108.3 million in long-term borrowing.
Question 2: $26.5 million for an offshore wind energy demonstration site, related manufacturing and campus energy conservation
Question 3: $47.8 million for highways, railroads and marine facilities
Question 4: $23.75 million for historic properties, and fishing, agricultural, dairy and lumbering grants and redevelopment at the Brunswick Naval Air Station
Question 5: $10.25 million for clean water projects
Question 3 includes money to buy and preserve a rail line that’s considered a lifeline to Aroostook County industries, as well as money for highways, the Ocean Gateway pier in Portland, and small harbor improvements.
Supporters point out that the total borrowing package would create hundreds of jobs and draw nearly $97 million in matching funds, but others warn that the state should not take on any more long-term debts while it struggles to recover from the recession and faces a mountain of other IOUs.
“The first step to getting out of the hole is to stop digging,” said Scott Moody, chief economist for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Those who helped to frame the bond package say the state would pay a huge burden in jobs lost or not created if the bonds don’t pass.
“Sometimes you can’t afford not to invest,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who is also House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.
Some of the bonds had been set for a June 2010 vote by the Legislature last year. Then the Legislature decided this spring to send more bonds to voters, finally negotiating a pared-down $57.8 million package.
The first of the four bonds on the ballot seeks $26.5 million. Promoted as a job-creating measure, it includes money for an offshore wind energy demonstration site and for wind-energy components manufacturing in the state. Funding is also included for energy-saving improvements in state university and community college systems and Maine Maritime Academy.
Passage would leverage $24.5 million in federal and other grants, according to the legislation.
The next bond question seeks $47.8 million for transportation projects. More than half of the total would go to highway reconstruction and paving. The rest goes to marine facilities and railroads, notably Portland’s Ocean Gateway deep water pier, rail lines leading to Lewiston and Auburn, southern Maine’s Mountain Division line, and preservation of 240 miles of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in northern Maine.
A third bond issue would authorize nearly $23.8 million in borrowing for a variety of efforts to stimulate job creation and the economy. The bonds would fund municipal revitalization projects, preserve historically significant properties, and research and development in areas such as biotechnology and marine technology.
Also included in those bonds are $8 million for redevelopment at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, where thousands of jobs will be lost as the Navy moves out by May 2011.
The final bond issue seeks nearly $10.3 million for clean-water projects, including wastewater treatment facilities. Those bonds alone would draw more than three times that figure in matching funds.
According to the Maine treasurer’s website, the state had a debt of a half billion dollars in general obligation bonds, and more than $1 billion when all tax-supported debts are taken into account as of Dec. 31, 2009. In addition, the state had $140 million in bonds that have been authorized but not yet issued.
But the Heritage Policy Center’s Moody said that tells only part of the story.
The group said the state’s unfunded liability to the state pension system is at least $13.7 billion, and even more is owed for retirees’ health benefits.
“With that train coming down the tracks, we need to talk about that and not new borrowing,” said Moody.
Cain said lawmakers closely considered what would happen if no bonds were to be issued, and concluded it would result in fewer construction jobs this summer, abandonment of the Aroostook railroad, costing even more jobs, and fewer grants for job-creating businesses.
Cain said the package is financially prudent because it keeps state debt service to less the 4 percent of general fund revenues. She noted that state bonds are available at favorable interest rates because of the state’s financial track record.