State budget panel approves $50 million package of jobs, water bonds

Posted April 16, 2014, at 10:03 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters could be asked to approve $50 million worth of bonds at the ballot box this November, if all the proposals by state leaders from both parties survive upcoming votes in the Legislature.

The bonds package features six separate initiatives aimed at job creation, small-business support, research and development, and a series of water projects. Details of the package were revealed for the first time Wednesday evening, when lawmakers on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee gave initial approval to the deal struck by the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

The bond proposals include:

• A $12 million bond for small-business financial aid through the Finance Authority of Maine to fund two established programs that provide start-up and expansion capital to small businesses.

• A $10 million bond to fund a competitive grant program for the development of a biometric research facility (Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory is likely the only company that will apply).

• A $10 million bond to fund various water initiatives, including the construction of culverts to aid fish passage, clean-water systems and conservation work.

• An $8 million bond to fund efforts by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension to assist farmers and forestry.

• A $7 million bond to fund competitive grants to boost the state’s marine economy, including lobster and seafood processing.

• A $3 million bond to fund biotechnology workforce training and drug research and development.

Each of the proposals, except for the water bond, came from a list developed by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future, which has been working since last year to identify ways to bolster the state’s economy.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is a member of that committee and one of the legislative leaders who crafted the bonds deal. He said the $50 million package is a way for the state to get “the most bang for its buck.”

“I’m sure there will be debate [in the Legislature], and there should be,” he said Wednesday night. “But we felt that $50 million was a comfortable figure. … We feel we can afford this investment.”

House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, leads the Joint Select Committee. He said the $12 million bond for financial assistance to businesses would be a game-changer for start-ups and small businesses looking to expand.

Business owners and developers have told the state that one of the largest hurdles they face is accessing the capital needed to start or grow their businesses. The bond would capitalize two FAME programs that help businesses get loans.

“Of all the things we looked at, these have the best leverage of private money for state money,” Berry said. He said for every dollar the state spends through the FAME programs, between $16 and $64 in private-sector spending is created.

The tone of the bonds project proposed by the Joint Select Committee and, ultimately, legislative leadership, was set last summer by Gov. Paul LePage. In negotiating a deal for a $100 million transportation bond, approved by voters in November, the governor said he would consider a research and development bond package this session, so long as the spending was aimed at job creation.

Berry said the proposals meet that condition.

“This package is focused on the commercialization of innovation,” he said. “This creates jobs in the near term — good-paying jobs — for Maine.”

The water bond originated in a bill by Assistant House Minority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. In a written statement, McCabe said the bond is about “natural resources, public health, fish passage, safety and jobs,” and would “have an immediate, measurable impact on our state.”

The Appropriations Committee will likely approve the final language of the bond proposals Thursday morning. The six bills will then go to the House and Senate for debate.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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