AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Appropriations Committee late Thursday approved a series of bond proposals totaling more than $95 million that would fund highway projects, research and development, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, higher education and the Land for Maine’s Future.
Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee spent Wednesday and most of the day Thursday discussing their options and then voting. Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the Senate chair of the committee, said he was proud of the consensus on most items.
“We have had a very cordial and productive 48 hours,” he said.
Earlier this week, lawmakers learned the state could borrow as much as $200 million beginning with the 2014-15 biennial budget, but spread out over the next 10 years. According to a state fiscal office analysis, debt service payments from 2013 to 2015 will decline by nearly $30 million.
Democrats were hoping to get close to that $200 million benchmark since borrowing rates are so low and the need for infrastructure is so great. A number of business advocates also urged lawmakers this week to consider bonds as a way to stimulate the economy and create jobs.
Republicans, however, held firm to the $95 million number because they felt anything higher would be tough to sell to Maine voters.
Appropriations committee member Senator Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the bonds strike “a reasonable balance between the unquestioned investment needs we face and our ability to afford more borrowing.”
“These targeted bonds will hopefully give us the most job creation bang for the buck,” he said.
The breakdown on what the Appropriations Committee passed Thursday looks like this: about $51 million would pay for transportation infrastructure; $20 million would support research and development; $11.3 million would go to higher education in Maine; about $8 million would help fund drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects and $5 million would support the Land for Maine’s Future program.
“These public investments will create jobs now and grow good-paying jobs for the future,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the committee. “The state could afford to do even more to create jobs but there was little political will from our Republican colleagues to do so.”
The bonds were crafted from 26 individual bills, some that were submitted last year and carried over and some that were introduced earlier this year. The original bills ranged in size from a few hundred thousands to tens of millions. Many of them overlapped.
The Appropriations Committee voted on each bond proposal individually rather than as a package and it appears as though that strategy is deliberate. If bonds are separated out rather than passed as a package, the governor would have the opportunity to veto them individually. If it’s put forward as a package, it’s all or nothing.
“We are concerned that the separate vote will set up one or more of the proposals to fail,” said Senator Dawn Hill, D-York. “If all five bonds pass the Legislature, the Republicans have given the governor a menu of options to reject rather than a single bipartisan package that was negotiated in good faith that we could all stand behind.”
Gov. Paul LePage already has said he doesn’t want to even talk about bonding until lawmakers address an estimated $90 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget for 2013.
The Appropriations Committee is expected to begin crafting a budget to address that shortfall as early as next week and the full Legislature is due back on May 15 to vote on a supplemental budget for DHHS.
“I would very much like to do infrastructure work on our roads and bridges with capital improvement money, but we can’t pay our current bills,” LePage said in a statement earlier this week. “It’s true that temporary jobs can be created through the use of bonds, but careers can also be saved by paying our hospital bills.”
LePage has not gone as far to say that he would veto any bond bill. All bonds require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate but they also must be approved by voters through a referendum. Lawmakers said they expect the $95 million worth of bond proposals to appear on the November ballot.
Rosen said the entire bond process has been unusual in the 125th Legislature.
“Usually there is a governor’s package that would be the template,” he said. “It became very clear last session that legislative leadership felt it prudent to take a rest and allow some bonds that have been authorized to work their way through the process and reduce the amount of bonds we’ve obligated ourselves to.”
Republicans and Democrats on Appropriations did split Thursday on how much to bond to improve higher education facilities and competitiveness. Democrats wanted to give an additional $3 million in funds to local campuses in the university system.
“Democrats think students at the local campuses from Aroostook to York should have the same opportunity to have improved laboratories and classrooms,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “No campus should be shortchanged.”
Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.