Democrats and Gov. Paul LePage have been at odds in recent days over what essentially amounts to a timeline. The two sides appeared to be working toward a resolution Wednesday, when LePage said he would entertain an infrastructure-based bond package as large as $150 million.
In March, LePage proposed a $100 million bond bill so the state Department of Transportation would have the funds it needed to complete its three-year work plan for addressing the state’s infrastructure needs.
The $100 million bond issue would earmark $46 million for high-priority state highways in need of repair, $30 million to rehabilitate structurally deficient bridges, $5 million for secondary roads that stretch through Maine’s towns and cities, and $19 million for upgrades to ports, railroads, airports and other transportation hubs.
Yes, the LePage who proposed that bond package is the same LePage who said in May 2012 he wouldn’t issue bonds previously authorized by voters “until we get our spending problem fully under control.”
In January, getting “our spending problem fully under control” came to mean repaying the state’s $484 million Medicaid debt to its hospitals. That’s when LePage pledged to release $105 million in bonds authorized by voters in 2010 and 2012 once lawmakers signed off on his hospital debt repayment plan.
The hospital debt repayment is now law, and state agencies are gradually requesting their portions of the $105 million in bonds LePage is now willing to issue. The $105 million figure includes $57 million for transportation projects, and the Department of Transportation is ready to use about $35.5 million of that total.
So, attention in the political sphere has turned to a new round of bond proposals and, specifically, LePage’s $100 million bond. The tables have turned, and LePage has found himself in the position of pressing a Democratic Legislature to move more quickly on a bond bill, so it can go to voters in November rather than in June 2014.
The calls from LePage and Republicans for action on the $100 million transportation bond have, unfortunately, come too late. If LePage was so intent on seeing his bond on November’s ballot, he should have pressed the case for it before lawmakers closed out a contentious legislative session. Republicans should have argued for the need well before they made a last-ditch attempt to pass the bond in the waning hours of the legislative session.
Nonetheless, there’s reason to be encouraged seeing LePage and Democratic legislative leaders on speaking terms, though only time will tell how long it will last. We’ll know they’ve turned a corner if they can work something out.
As they work out a deal, policymakers need a clearer grasp on a few key matters.
First, they must determine if it’s still feasible for a bond issue to get to voters by November.
In the spring, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap gave lawmakers an Aug. 9 deadline for acting on bond bills if they wanted to see them go before voters in November. “Every day that goes by [after Aug. 9], we have less room to work with if something goes wrong,” Dunlap said Tuesday.
That time allows the Secretary of State’s office to order ballots to be printed, distribute them to nearly 500 municipalities and make absentee ballots available to service members stationed overseas. There’s wiggle room, but lawmakers need to figure out exactly how much.
Second, it would benefit lawmakers and the public to understand exactly how the Department of Transportation’s work plan would be endangered if voters signed off on a bond in June 2014 rather than November, or if the transportation investments end up among several different types of investments in a $150 million bond bill.
The department developed its work plan for 2014, 2015 and 2016 with the understanding that $100 million would be available. “If the bond doesn’t happen,” said department spokesman Ted Talbot, “we would have to defer $100 million worth of projects.”
Having the bond money in hand sooner would allow the department to be “nimble,” according to Talbot. It would work to the state’s advantage, for example, to have funds available if the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway needs to be bailed out, he said. Also on the work plan is a rail connection to the International Marine Terminal in Portland, a development that could help businesses cut shipping costs.
But the Department of Transportation has $21.5 million in additional bonding capacity from previous bonds it hasn’t yet committed to projects. While it’s important to keep its work plan on track, the department likely has some flexibility in the timing of this bond. The department could also have some flexibility with size, if LePage holds firm to his $150 million cap.
We would like to see crucial investments made in our transportation infrastructure. The Department of Transportation undoubtedly has important upgrades lined up for the bonded funds.
But it’s also important that bonds that fund other investments aren’t left behind as Democrats and the LePage administration work toward a deal.
If Democratic leaders agree to a November bond issue and there’s no way around LePage’s $150 million cap, they should demand significant investments are also made in research and development and higher education — investments that are crucial to economic development.