Voters endorsed three important investments in Maine’s infrastructure by passing bond Questions 3, 4 and 5 on this year’s state ballot. We are disappointed they didn’t also approve Question 2.
Tuesday’s rejection of Question 2, which would have provided $11.3 million for University of Maine System, community college and Maine Maritime Academy facility upgrades, shows that voters still need more evidence that borrowing for higher education will yield tangible economic benefits.
Ryan Low, executive director of government and external affairs for the University of Maine System, correctly explains the next assignment for University of Maine and community college system administrators: “We need to do a better job of educating voters that investment in higher education delivers a strong return.”
Dating back to 1994 and 2005, when Mainers also rejected borrowing packages for higher education building projects, that message hasn’t gotten through.
Voters can see that Maine roads need repair, for example, Low said, but it’s harder for them to recognize that paying to combine animal, plant and insect specimen diagnostic work in a single facility with quarantine capabilities would yield statewide economic and public safety benefits.
A March 2012 University of Maine System study estimates that the system generates $8.23 for every $1 that the state allocates to it. That economic impact needs to feature prominently in future cost-benefit analyses of higher education in Maine.
Low said University of Maine officials are committed to further streamlining costs and holding the line on tuition. “When voters and students see that bang for the buck, that will translate into more success at the ballot box,” he said.
Gov. Paul LePage can help there as well, especially in recognizing the need for investments in postsecondary programs that allow Maine students to keep pace with technological advances that better prepare them to meet the evolving workforce needs of the state’s employers.
Higher education is a key part of the intellectual and vocational infrastructure of Maine’s economy. It warrants investment.
Question 3 adds $5 million to the Land for Maine’s Future program to continue its successful open space, working waterfront and farmland conservation efforts. A February 2012 study by The Trust for Public Land calculated that every $1 spent by Land for Maine’s Future returns $11 to the state’s economy.
Question 4 dedicates $41 million to bridge and road repairs, triggering $72 million in matching federal funds. It also allocates $10.5 million for port, rail, emergency response and public transportation upgrades.
Question 5 pours almost $8 million into revolving loan funds for drinking water and wastewater treatment system upgrades. By approving Question 5, voters opened the tap to almost $40 million in matching federal funds.
Each of these questions passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, reflecting Mainers’ widespread support and recognition of the value in infrastructure investment.
LePage, who did not sign the bond questions that appeared on this year’s ballot and who has withheld authorization of bonds approved by voters in previous elections, should heed the voters’ clear message and allow the flow of bond money to the departments and programs responsible for their expenditure.
Land purchases and large-scale projects such as bridge and water treatment plant renovations require extensive planning. Uncertainty about when bond funding would be available complicates planning for public officials and private contractors. A September 2012 analysis by Federal Bank of San Francisco researchers calculated that uncertainty about government actions also creates a direct negative impact on the overall economy.
Signing bonds that voters overwhelmingly approved would eliminate unnecessary uncertainty from the Maine economy and free contractors to hire and plan for projects. It also would affirm voters’ willingness to view borrowing for vital infrastructure as tantamount to taking out a necessary home improvement loan. Now, if only that message about the value of investing in higher education could reach Maine voters, too.