Democrats want bond package to support small businesses; GOP wary of additional state borrowing

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick
Christopher Cousins
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick
Posted Jan. 06, 2014, at 4:07 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats will seek support for a slate of bond proposals they say will create jobs by supporting Maine businesses, but Republicans in the state House and Senate are tepid on the idea of additional state borrowing.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said any bonds supported by Democrats in the second session, which begins Wednesday, will “bring together the best of Maine and build on Maine’s economic advantages.”

Eves has introduced a bill, currently being drafted, to issue a $30 million bond to support the state’s marine and biotechnology sectors.

Of that total, $15 million would fund building on equipment investments at Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory, a world-leader in biomedical and genetic research. The second $15 million would go toward a University of New England-led initiative to connect and support Maine’s maritime industries “from port to plate,” Eves said — including fishing, aquaculture and seafood processing.

If approved, Eves’ bond bill would leverage an additional $50 million in private and public funding for the two endeavors.

Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has also proposed a bond — tentatively valued at $10 million — to establish a lobster processing facility with the capacity to flash-freeze. The idea is to use the bond to coax a private developer into building such a facility, but if no one steps up to the plate, Jackson said the money could be used to build a state-run facility.

Lobster fishermen have bemoaned the lack of in-state processing, which leaves them dependent on Canadian companies they say are unreliable. In recent years, prices offered by Canadian processors have been lower than Maine lobstermen have thought fair, and in one instance, Maine lobster was turned away by striking fishermen in the Maritime provinces.

Then there’s the Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future. House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the committee, said the group will develop a bond package aimed at providing much-needed capital to small businesses looking to grow their companies — and hire more Mainers.

Berry said that while banks are offering low interest rates, the recession has made them extremely cautious.

“A lot of businesses are having trouble pulling together that last dollar, the total amount they need to realize their dream,” he said Monday.

If these proposals sound tailor-made to win Republican support, there’s good reason: In August, lawmakers and LePage hammered out a bipartisan bond agreement worth $150 million, which voters approved in November. The package included $100 million for transportation infrastructure, a top priority for the governor, and the remainder went to other infrastructure projects for higher education and Maine’s armories.

As part of that deal, Republicans agreed to consider research and development bonding initiatives in the second session.

Berry said LePage made it clear during negotiations for that package that any additional bonding should focus on “commercialization” of research and development. He said he agrees that any bond proposals should lead to job creation.

“We don’t want to support innovation for its own sake,” Berry said. “We want to support innovation that creates jobs. That’s our sole focus here.”

The state is scheduled to make more than $98 million in payments on outstanding general fund and highway fund debt service in fiscal year 2014. The state currently owes $1.04 billion in outstanding debt, according to a spokesman for the state treasurer.

“I don’t think going forward there is going to be much of an appetite in putting forward a bond package at this time,” said House MInority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. “I think the bonding capacity, from the Republican perspective, was met when we did the bond package in 2013.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he couldn’t speak for the Senate Republican caucus, but that he would be willing to discuss bonding so long as it was aimed at job creation. But his interest is far from enthusiastic, he said.

“I’m not out there fist-pumping about borrowing even more money, but I’ll talk about it,” he said.

As for the governor, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said he’ll need to carefully weigh the benefits and cost of any bonds discussed in the Legislature before he decides whether to support them.

“As always, the devil’s in the details,” she said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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