March 23, 2019
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A good type of debt: Bond ME

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Tom Perkins of Dirigo Architectural describes in August 2011 how the blade of a wind turbine would be attached to the inside of the test stand at the Offshore Wind Laboratory at the University of Maine. This test stand is made of 6.5 mililon pounds of concrete and 40 tons of steel and can hold a blade up to 70 meters long for testing.

Don’t be put off by the name. The Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine is improving your energy future. It constructed a first-in-the-nation laboratory designed to manufacture and test offshore wind turbines.

It built the Offshore Wind Laboratory, in part, with $5 million in state bond money awarded through a competitive process for research and development projects. With that money, administered by the Maine Technology Institute through the Maine Technology Asset Fund, it was able to leverage an additional $12.5 million.

The laboratory is not only undertaking research critical to the state and nation’s long-term energy needs, but it’s employing people, teaching students and has given a lot of work to subcontractors and suppliers. It has supported more than 150 new full-time jobs, with yearly wages ranging from $30,000 to $70,000.

The laboratory is just one of 35 projects in the state since 2008 that has benefited from research and development bond money. Now, Maine lawmakers have the opportunity to continue the investment in science and technology.

When they return on Tuesday, they should send to Maine voters a $20 million bond proposal for research and development. Legislators will be voting on five separate borrowing bills, including the one for R&D.

The state has been investing more seriously in R&D since a $20 million bond was approved by voters in 1998. Additional investments have continued through the years — Mainers approved a $50 million bond in 2008.

Maine’s push to find new approaches to science and technology showed results over time, but now the state appears to be slipping, according to data from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Maine’s ranking among states on R&D funds per capita was 49th in 1997, 35th in 2005 and is now 38th. Maine’s total R&D activity is about one-third of the U.S. average and one-sixth of the New England average.

The question about whether to fund R&D comes down to a larger question about Maine’s economy. R&D investments allow Maine to expand into other sectors, such as business, health services and information and biomedical technologies. At the same time, they help traditional industries — such as manufacturing, forestry, fishing, tourism and agriculture — change and become more competitive.

When Gov. Paul LePage said in April that bonds are not the answer to the state’s problems, he capitalized on a general feeling by some that all borrowing is bad. But who doesn’t need a loan to buy a house and makes one lump sum payment instead?

The R&D funds require a match, so the state is looking at a total of at least $40 million in spending on projects that boost economic development. If you’re going to borrow, doing so to create jobs is a pretty good reason. The Legislature should approve the bill for R&D bonding.

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