AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers will return on Monday to vote, once again, on a controversial bond package that northern Maine business leaders insist is critical to the economic health of their region.
But while some are hoping for a compromise on bonds, Democratic and Republican leaders were showing few signs on Thursday afternoon — at least publicly — that they were budging from their respective positions.
David Loughran, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said the $85 million package that was defeated Wednesday was already the product of a compromise. Democrats originally had proposed a $99 million bond.
“It remains something that they believe in,” he said. “And they would like to see it passed.”
Legislative leaders opted to extend the session and give lawmakers a four-day break after it became clear late Wednesday night that Democrats lacked the two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to send the bond measure to the voters. In the House, the measure passed with barely more than a two-thirds majority on a vote of 100-48, but it took two attempts.
The proposal contains $17 million in bonds to buy more than 230 miles of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway tracks between Millinocket and Madawaska. MMA has threatened to abandon and tear up the line — thereby eliminating freight service to some of Aroostook County’s largest employers — unless the state or another buyer steps forward.
In the Senate, Democrats would need to pick up at least four votes from the 15 Republicans to pass the bill. No Republicans voted for the $85 million bond package during a tally late Wednesday night.
Senate Republicans offered several amendments to the bond bill on Wednesday. All of the proposals involved reducing the size of the bond package, and many would have re-allocated money in bond proposals already slated to go to voters in June and November.
“We tried to offer responsible alternatives through our amendments, and we were rebuffed,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale.
Democrats said the other party had more than a month to offer an alternative bond measure as a starting point for negotiations, but that GOP lawmakers declined.
With their unanimous opposition, Republicans appeared to be drawing a line in the sand in order to force Democrats to back off their $85 million bond package.
“We feel that’s too high, it’s too much,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. “It’s beyond our reasonable capacity as we look ahead at the [challenges] of the next legislative session.”
But Democrats, who forecast their proposal will create or preserve more than 2,000 jobs, showed little interest Wednesday night in re-negotiating items contained in last year’s bond package.
“What this proposal is about is trying to build upon the foundation laid last year to create more jobs,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, said Wednesday night.
The decision to gather again on Monday kept alive hopes among Aroostook County lawmakers and business leaders that they can secure bond money to prevent the abandonment of the only major railway serving northern Maine.
Yet little to no progress seemed to have been made by Thursday evening to resolve the stalemate.
“There is no meeting planned to negotiate,” Loughran said.
Courtney said he and Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, came to the State House on Thursday morning, but there was no one around from the Democratic side.
“We have offered to continue to talk and will continue to work together with the Democratic leadership,” Courtney said.