Republican and Democratic lawmakers publicly lauded the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee last week when it approved a $149.5 million bond package. The proposal, which will go before the full Legislature this week before heading to voters in November, would make investments in transportation and education infrastructure that have a clear long-term public benefit, the ability to leverage matching dollars and a proven economic return.
But the bond package is not a complete win for either party as much as it’s a conquest for Gov. Paul LePage. After preventing the release of bonds for the last two years, he has continued to control what makes the cut. And in this case, he signed off on a package with major flaws.
First, the good news is that Maine finally has a proposal in hand after two years of the governor’s convoluted politicking.
In 2011, he said he wouldn’t issue bonds approved by voters in 2010. Why? Because he said the state couldn’t afford it. He then changed course and used the bonds for political leverage, saying he wouldn’t release them until the state’s Medicaid debt was paid. Then, he wanted a bonds package quickly.
In the end, the package came together largely as the LePage administration dictated. Democrats agreed to abandon their initial timeline for approving the bonds, agreed to LePage’s $100 million transportation bond and stayed within the LePage-set $150 million cap for a bonds package. They also agreed to LePage’s limitations for a bonds package: one that deals solely with infrastructure.
The biggest, inexcusable loss is that there’s no proposed bond funding for research and development — again. Last year, LePage vetoed a $20 million research and development borrowing package.
The state could have invested in future products and industries — to drive innovation, draw matching private funds and create jobs — but neither Republicans nor Democrats were successful in negotiations this time around. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, requested $20 million, and Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, sought $50 million, for the Maine Technology Institute. The organization would have awarded funding on a competitive basis for research, development and commercialization.
Instead of allocating bond money as it’s intended — to generate a lasting return — LePage and legislators proposed $14 million for armory maintenance and renovation. There are many good reasons to support the state’s Air and Army National Guard, but this is not an appropriate use of bond money, especially if it replaces funding for research and development. The Legislature should be funding the Guard at an adequate annual level instead.
Out of the $14 million proposed for the armories, $3 million would be used to purchase about 6,000 acres in Maine on which guardsmen would train for deployment and other missions. While it would be convenient for the Guard to train in Maine, there are fine training locations in Vermont and Massachusetts. We are skeptical of the need for training space as troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
The remaining $11 million of the bond money would be used for projects to improve heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, remove asbestos, replace boilers, repoint bricks, repair electrical systems and lighting, complete paving, repair roofs and windows and update fire alarms and sprinklers at its locations throughout the state. The Guard should certainly have well-maintained buildings — which are used for public gatherings in addition to Guard administration, training and weapons and equipment storage — but these projects usually fall within the scope of operating budgets, not bond proposals.
The Guard argues that the bond money would help create a much improved environment for its soldiers to work in, and that’s true. We don’t question the need. But asking the state to go into debt for maintenance, which would have a limited return, is not responsible. The state should be funding the Guard at an adequate level each year or finding a way to help the Guard cut costs, so it doesn’t get to the point where it needs to bond for renovations. Borrowing money now won’t fix the underlying problem.
Bond money would be better used for research and development — to draw an economic return and create jobs. Grow the economy to generate more state funds for armory maintenance. Don’t eat the seed corn.
For example, the proposed $100 million in transportation bond money for the construction of and improvements to roads, bridges, ports, rails and harbors — drawing an estimated $130 million match in federal funds — would benefit the flow of commerce and help make Maine more competitive. The proposed $15.5 million bond for the Maine Community College System would add labs and classrooms to expand programs to meet Maine’s workforce and economic development needs.
One irony is that LePage, who wouldn’t release bond money last year, took credit in a press release for the armory bond proposal — when it was actually put forward by a Democrat, Sen. John Tuttle of Sanford. In this case, both parties got it backward. The full Legislature should agree to bond for research and development and address Guard funding in its biennial budget.