December 15, 2019
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LePage, lawmakers reach deal on $150M bond package for November referendum

AUGUSTA, Maine — The governor and legislators have hashed out a deal for a $149.5 million bond package for state infrastructure projects, putting an end to what has been a pitched political battle during this legislative off-season. Voters will decide whether to approve the package in a November referendum.

The total package is inches from the $150 million cap that Gov. Paul LePage said he would accept from any bond package, and includes political victories for both sides. LePage could claim victory for the $100 million for investment in roads, bridges, ports and working waterfronts, which he originally proposed in March, and was supported by both parties.

Democrats got Republicans to agree to $35 million in spending on upgrades to higher educational facilities. The deal also included $14 million for maintenance and renovations at Maine Armory sites, a proposal by the governor.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee will reconvene next week to hash out the bond bills, and lawmakers are expected to reconvene for what is expected to be be a smooth approval vote on the proposal in time to get the bond on the November ballot.

LePage said that paying back old Medicaid bills to Maine’s hospitals — one of his top policy goals in the recently concluded legislative session — allowed the state to responsibly take on new debt.

“Now that the session is over and lawmakers have been gone for a few weeks, everything has been much calmer in the State House,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “We had productive discussions with legislative leadership, and we were able to put together a bond package based on my original proposal that is a good deal for the people of Maine.”

After weeks of heated rhetoric surrounding the bond deal, Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the deal was a “win for Maine.”

“The way these negotiations started, I think a lot of pundits thought this wasn’t going to get done, and we got it done,” Alfond said in an interview Friday. “We were always thinking of how to move things forward for the people of Maine.”

LePage and Democratic leaders had sparred over the timing of a bond package since early July as the governor and Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt pushed for an August vote on his transportation bond alone, in an effort to land the question on a referendum in November, which the governor said would prevent delays in the Department of Transportation’s 2014 project schedule.

Democrats had said they would take up the transportation bond, as well as other spending for education, research and development, and infrastructure projects — priorities for their party — when the Senate convened in September for confirmation hearings. That would have pushed the referendum until June.

Leaders in the House and Senate from both parties have been negotiating around the clock since Wednesday, when the governor met with top lawmakers and set the parameters for what he would consider in a bond package, said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

Those stipulations included placement on a November ballot, the $150 million cap and a requirement that all spending be in infrastructure.

“[The deal] shows that when everyone is sitting at the table, and can talk about their differences, you get a product we can all be happy with,” Fredette said.

LePage originally proposed the transportation bond in March, but Democrats put the brakes on the plan, as well as on more than 30 other bond proposals totaling about $1.2 billion, as attention focused on passing a biennial budget and concluding the legislative session on time in June. They said any bond needed to be subject to a thorough, deliberative process and not rushed through the legislature during the final days of the session.

They also called for LePage to release $104 million in bonds approved by voters in 2010 and 2012. LePage agreed to release those bonds in June, after a bill had been passed to pay back outstanding Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals.

At the close of the session this spring, Bernhardt had suggested a June vote would not be a problem, but had changed his story as the political fight erupted in recent weeks. Democrats accused the administration of posturing and politicizing the issue, while Republicans accused Democrats of holding the transportation bond hostage until it could be grouped in a bond package with spending they would oppose.

If all goes according to lawmakers’ plan, Voters will approve or deny the bond in five separate referendum questions in November.

The $100 million in transportation infrastructure spending includes $76 million for road and bridge repair or construction and $24 million for ports, rails and public transportation. The $35.5 million in educational infrastructure includes $15.5 million for STEM facility renovations and upgrades across the University of Maine System, $15.5 million for renovations to dormitories and other buildings across Maine Community College System and $4.5 million for a new science facility at Maine Maritime Academy.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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