July 16, 2019
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Conservation bond highlights competitive borrowing race for Maine lawmakers in 2019

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, left, speaks at a 2015 news conference in Cumberland.

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A wide group of Maine legislators and conservationists is behind a $95 million bond proposal to revive a key conservation program and address a maintenance backlog at state parks in a year where there is pent-up demand for borrowing.

The Democratic-led Legislature has proposed more than $1.5 billion in bonding this year — a massive figure that will be whittled down substantially — although Gov. Janet Mills’ two-year budget proposal assumes less voter-approved bonding than Maine did over the past two years two-thirds of it earmarked for the Department of Transportation.

All of that is leading to a highly competitive race for Maine’s bond money and as always, some proposals — like the conservation bond — are more likely than others to be in the mix.

More than 100 lawmakers back the large conservation bond, which came from a task force on conservation issues. The bond, which will be pushed at a press conference in Augusta on Tuesday, was one of the main recommendations from the Land Conservation Task Force, which included the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and other groups that looked at the state’s conservation picture for the next generation.

It would provide $75 million to the Land for Maine’s Future program and $20 million to address a basic maintenance backlog at state parks that the commission pegged at $50 million. Those two areas of state government haven’t gotten bond support since 2012 and 2010, respectively.

The Land for Maine’s Future program was a political football during the era of former Gov. Paul LePage, who spent most of 2015 holding up $11.5 million in voter-approved bonds earmarked for it before he relented to lawmakers who wanted him to release all of them in early 2016. It will return to a less controversial status under Mills, a Democrat.

The bond is a top legislative goal of Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who was on the commission and co-chairs the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. Her bill is co-sponsored by more than 100 other lawmakers, including 17 Republicans. That and the bond’s disbursement schedule of five years bodes well for its survival — in some form — in an eventual bond package.

There will be wider competition for the rest of the bond funding. Mills’ two-year budget allows for enough in debt service payments to support $300 million in new borrowing over that period, according to State Treasurer Henry Beck, a Democrat. Maine voters approved $355 million in bonding during the last two years of LePage’s tenure 2017 and 2018.

However, Mills is speaking for much of that: her budget sets aside $200 million for the Maine Department of Transportation, which counts on annual borrowing in $100 million increments to help fill a shortfall in road and bridge maintenance caused in part by a waning gas tax.

The Legislature could go beyond and many would assuredly like to, with 30 bond proposals looming that run the gamut from broadband expansion to fire stations to building a new Portland convention center. The conservation bond has a good chance to be in the mix, but the debate will likely center around the amount and what else voters get to decide on in 2019.


Today in A-town

The House of Representatives could vote to pass its first bill today, though it’s not guaranteed. LD 477, the bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash to bring financial relief to federal workers affected by future federal government shutdowns is up for a vote this morning in the House, after clearing the Senate late last month.

After both chambers meet this morning, legislative committees will convene this afternoon for deliberations on net energy billing, whether to allow dairy farmers to donate fresh milk to food banks, continuing education for physicians who prescribe opioids, and removing nighttime restrictions on lobstering in parts of the Bay of Fundy. Find a full committee schedule here.

The Committee on Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business will take up a resolve — LD 768 from Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland — to task a new commission with researching economic disparities between the state’s racial and ethnic populations. Listen here.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will also continue hearings on Mills’ $8 billion two-year budget, starting at 1 p.m. Listen here.


Reading list

— Turmoil grips the largest union at Bath Iron Works as the company’s workload increases. The executive board of Local S6 of the Machinists Union asked that a representative of the union’s parent organization review the local’s management to ensure that leaders are abiding by union rules. Mike Keenan, who returned as president of the shipyard local after being barred from running for four years, declined to comment on the request. In 2008, he and three other officers of the local chapter were escorted from the union hall amid claims of financial mismanagement and pornography being viewed on union-owned computers. The oversight requests comes as union members prepare for elections and contract negotiations later this year. With a significant backlog of work now, including contracts to build one DDG 51 destroyer each in fiscal year from 2019 through 2022, the company is currently in the process of hiring approximately 1,000 people. Those new hires would replace a wave of recent retirees and fill new positions created to handle the strong workload.

— The governor will hire 45 people to work at a temporary call center near her hometown to help expedite Medicaid expansion. With enrollment under a voter-approved Medicaid eligibility law that Mills began implementing on her first day in office nearing 9,000, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday that it would open a temporary call center in Wilton. The move is designed to assist Mainers in all aspects of the eligibility process, but it also could help offset the loss of roughly 200 jobs when a bank card call center in the town closes later this month.

— A Maine native who spent eight years crafting policy in Massachusetts will lead the governor’s energy office. Mills announced Monday she’s hired Dan Burgess, a Newport native, as the next director of the Governor’s Energy Office. Burgess, 36, has spent the past eight years working in the administrations of Massachusetts Govs. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and Deval Patrick, a Democrat, including a stint as acting commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy Resources. He arrives as Mills navigates a politically sensitive proposal to transmit hydro power from Quebec through Maine to Massachusetts and as she strives to pump new life into alternative energy development that slowed during LePage’s eight years in office.


Viking pride

For as long as humans have engaged in sports, athletes have been finding motivation from and dedicating their performances to ailing, dying or recently deceased loved ones.

The canon of sports literature and films inspired by that “win one for the Gipper” mentality is long and tear-soaked. Sports teams add numbers or initials to their uniforms to honor fallen comrades or colleagues.

During the past few seasons, Major League Baseball umpires have worn the initials of former umpires who died during the past year on their sleeves in memoriam. [Side note: The alarmingly high number of those initials should probably cause me to rethink my commitment to umpiring as a stress-relieving escape from political journalism.]

In 2011, the New England Patriots wore the initials MHK on their uniforms to honor Myra Kraft, the late wife of owner Robert Kraft, an act that now takes on a bit of retroactive irony.

More touching and altruistic tributes can be found in Maine high school sports — which offer an oasis of relative competitive purity in an increasingly squalid world of professional and collegiate sports dominated by greed, gambling and rich-people foibles. Caribou High School senior Austin Findlen dedicated his season, capped by an amazing performance to lead the Vikings to their first state basketball title in 50 years, to his grandfather, William L. Findlen, who died in January. Please take a few minutes to read Ernie Clark’s story about it here.

In a less overt Viking athletic tribute from this year’s high school basketball tournament, I could not help thinking of my dear, departed friend Chris Cousins as I watched Oxford Hills junior Julia Colby play a leading role in leading her team to the Class AA title. Julia is the daughter of one of Chris’ best friends from their days at Oxford Hills. From the time she was in elementary school, he would rave to me about her hardcourt skills.

“Robert, you’ve got to see this kid play. She’s amazing,” he would say with the pride of someone who on more than one occasion painted parts of his body green to show his support for his alma mater, but more importantly for a friendship that extended beyond generations and geography.

As I watched her play with such poise and leadership in Saturday night’s championship, I could not help thinking of Chris. And things got misty, even if there’s not supposed to be any crying in the press box.

Thank you to Austin and Julia for reminding us about what sports can and should be. Here is your soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but email us directly at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, aacquisto@bangordailynews.com, and rlong@bangordailynews.com.



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