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Bond backers fear rejection at the polls

Posted May 19, 2010, at 9:59 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters will be asked to approve more than $108 million in borrowing next month, and supporters of the bond package are worried. They say if they can’t convince voters the bonds will help create jobs, one or more could be defeated.

“We have seen it before coming out of a recession,” said Chris Hall, vice president of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce. “No one should take this for granted. Voters are going to have to be convinced.”

In 1992, Maine was coming out of a recession, and voters rejected four of the six bond proposals on the ballot, including one labeled a “jobs bond.” Hall said he is hearing many of the same concerns about the economy now that were being discussed then.

“We did have some members on our board that opposed our endorsement because of those same concerns,” he said. “But most, more than 60 percent, supported all of the bond package.”

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said there is good reason to worry.

Brewer said there is a tendency for voters to reject proposals they have not heard about or do not understand. He said some voters could react to the size of the bond proposal without reading through the question that indicates it has matching funds or creates jobs.

He said that with 11 gubernatorial primary campaigns underway, getting any message to the voters will be difficult and expensive.

“It’s getting late to put together a campaign to reach voters and convince them to support these bonds,” he said. “It’s going to take more than a few ads with all the candidate campaigns we have under way.”

Christopher Potholm, a political scientist at Bowdoin College, agrees.

“When in doubt, people vote no,” he said. “And in a situation like this, where they see bonds one, two, three and four, they are very likely to throw one to the wolves.”

Potholm said the reason most bonds have been approved in past elections has been the campaign efforts by supporters to convince voters a borrowing proposal is a good one.

“I don’t see any of that underway, and it’s getting late,” he said.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who helped broker the bond package as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, is also worried.

“A lot of people are worried about the economy and unemployment and just putting the bonds out there is not enough,” he said. “Without a campaign, some voters will vote no because they have never heard of the bonds or what they can do to help the state’s economy.”

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, is a veteran of many of those campaigns. He said a coalition is being put together to launch an advertising campaign in support of all the bond proposals.

“We are working on it,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much we will have, but we are planning to do some advertising.”

Connors is convinced the bonds will create jobs and if that message can be delivered to the voters, the bonds will pass.

“But yes, with all the candidates and campaigns under way, it won’t be easy to get the message out,” he said.

And this year there is active opposition to the bonds from conservative groups like the Maine Heritage Policy Center. President Tarren Bragdon said while bonding is appropriate for some of the state’s capital needs, Maine has too much debt when all potential liabilities are added together.

“It’s our hope that the voters will reject some of these and send a strong message to the politicians in Augusta that if you are not going to be responsible with our credit card, then we will take matters into our own hands and vote no,” he said. “We are going to say no more debt, not now.”

Connors and Hall say while the state’s overall debt is a concern of the business community, getting Maine’s economy growing again is the way to address paying that debt. They argue that includes passing the bonds to put thousands of Mainers to work on a wide range of projects.

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