AUGUSTA, Maine — A $105 million transportation bond proposal cruised through the Maine Legislature on Thursday, but Republican opposition stalled a $40 million student debt relief plan from a strange tag-team: Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats.
The transportation bond would devote $80 million to roads and bridges, $20 million to multimodal transportation and $5 million to culvert upgrades. It was the only one of three bond proposals backed by the Legislature’s budget committee approved by the full Legislature on Thursday. The money supports the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan.
It’s likely to win the Republican governor’s signature, which would send it to the November ballot. But final action on the student debt plan from Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, and a $55 million bond for Maine’s biomedical industry was stalled after falling short of two-thirds margins in initial votes amid Republican opposition.
Libby’s bill would pay student loan debt for people who agree to live and work in Maine for five years and reimburse employers who make student loan payments on behalf of those employees. However, only three House Republicans and two Senate Republicans supported that proposal.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said he backed the concept, but said the proposed qualification criteria for the program are vague and that levels of spending in Maine’s two-year budget are already high.
“I don’t think it’s because people don’t think student debt’s not a problem in Maine,” he said. “I think it’s just a reality of where we are today.”
Fredette is rarely out of step with LePage, who acknowledged Republican opposition to the bill in a Thursday morning interview with WGAN, saying “if you don’t like my plan, come up with your own” and saying Maine, the nation’s oldest state, needs more working-age people.
That has been Libby’s argument. He said Democrats and LePage face “traditional resistance from Republicans” to non-transportation bonds and that Democrats will lean on the governor to build support among fellow Republicans.
The two delayed bonds will likely face further action when the Legislature returns on Aug. 2 to handle outstanding business and expected LePage vetoes.
The Legislature took several other actions on Thursday, including:
— Sustaining five LePage vetoes and overriding another four. Democratic bills aimed at reducing the gender wage gap and boosting in-state loggers died after LePage vetoes, but lawmakers bucked LePage on a bill to extend renewable energy requirements through 2028. Final action on LePage’s veto of a solar policy bill was delayed.
— Sending several key bills to LePage. The Legislature approved bills that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, ban cellphone use while driving, send a constitutional amendment to voters allowing state employee pension losses to be amortized over 20 years instead of 10 years and restore 50 public health nurse positions. They’re all subject to LePage’s veto pen.
— Sending the controversial York County casino referendum to the ballot. Since April, some legislators were considering an untested bid to kill the 2017 initiative, whose backers are being investigated by the Maine Ethics Commission for apparent violations. But the Legislature quietly moved to not act on it on Thursday, sending it straight to voters.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.