Legislature approves $150 million bond package; voters will decide in November

Posted Aug. 29, 2013, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2013, at 9:10 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Thursday approved nearly $150 million in borrowing for infrastructure projects around the state.

Voters will decide whether to approve the five bond proposals in separate questions at the ballot box in November. Legislators on both sides of the aisle touted the bond package as a job-creating investment in transportation infrastructure, higher education and Maine’s Army National Guard armories.

As was expected, each of the five bond bills sailed easily through both chambers of the Legislature, which was called for a special one-day session during its summer recess by Republican Gov. Paul LePage. The largest, a $100 million transportation infrastructure bond, was championed by LePage, who originally introduced the bill in March.

The governor is expected to sign the bills Friday.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were originally hesitant to return to a special session on the transportation bond alone, as the governor had originally requested. After weeks of tense public negotiations, the governor agreed to accept a package of bonds up to $150 million, so long as the proposals focused on infrastructure.

Lawmakers and the governor ultimately reached a deal on a $149.5 million package. Democrats wanted to include other bond proposals for research and development, conservation efforts and water treatment spending. Republicans agreed to take up those issues during the next regular session, which begins in January.

The transportation bond will fund $76 million in highway and bridge repairs, as well as $24 million in “multimodal” infrastructure, including the international container port facility in Portland, passenger and transit rail, and a $4 million project to dredge Portland Harbor.

Two other bonds, each totalling $15.5 million, will invest in science, technology, engineering and math buildings at every campus of the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems.

A separate bond would contribute public funds to a new science facility at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, which would also be funded with private dollars.

Lastly, a $14 million bond would pay for the renovation and maintenance of the state’s armories, which are in varying states of disrepair.

Each bond bill required two-thirds approval of those present in both chambers on the Legislature. Each bond was easily passed in the House and all but one — borrowing for the University of Maine System — were approved unanimously by the Senate.

“The University of Maine has become too much about money and not enough about students,” said Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, who opposed the UMaine System bond bill. “I’m told there are 1,118 employees of the University of Maine System who make over $100,000 per year. That’s too many.”

Thomas was joined in opposition by fellow Republican Sens. David Burns, R-Whiting, and Garret Mason, R-Lisbon Falls.

Speaking in favor of all three education spending bond bills, Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said the borrowing was critical in ensuring the state’s higher education institutions were “accessible, affordable and able to live up to the economic driver expectations we place on them every day.”

It’s difficult to determine how many jobs will be created next year if the bonds are approved. That will depend on which projects move forward and when they do. Still, lawmakers and the governor on Thursday said each bond would help revitalize Maine’s construction sector, which has struggled to recover since the recession that began five years ago.

“I am pleased that we can send these bonds to voters in November,” LePage said in a statement. “Infrastructure projects create good-paying jobs in the construction industry, and our roads, bridges and ports are important economic drivers that help attract and retain jobs. We are improving our transportation network, and we are putting Mainers back to work.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap will draw the order of the bond questions for November’s ballot on Friday.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that each bond bill needed two-thirds approval by the full Legislature. Bond bills require two-thirds approval by those lawmakers who are present.

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