After years of underinvesting in the state’s infrastructure and development, Maine policymakers would be right to move forward with a significant package of bonds targeted at growing our economy.
The debate in the Legislature should focus on the best way to do this.
Earlier this week, Gov. Janet Mills unveiled a proposal for $239 in borrowing over the next two years. The bond proposal focuses on workforce and economic development, with money for student and worker training, research and development, child care, energy improvements and an expansion of broadband. It also includes money for road and bridge repairs, which have become a standard on the Maine ballot.
Under the governor’s proposal, $189 million would be sent to voters in November with the remainder, which includes funding for broadband and R&D going to voters next year.
The package includes many familiar items — funding for drinking water improvements, research and development, land conservation, and transportation — and some new ideas. For example, the governor proposes to allocate $5 million of the borrowed money to child care facilities. The money, in the form of grants and loans, would be available for centers to expand and make improvements. Recipients must be part of the state’s quality rating system, and the money would be targeted to low-income populations. Currently, some child care facilities have limited slots and long waiting lists.
The bond proposal also includes $5 million for career and technical training centers, where high school students can be trained for careers. The money would be used for technology upgrades at the state’s 16 centers.
Another aspect of the workforce portion of the bond is $4 million for the state’s community colleges with a focus on training in growing industries with demand for quick skills acquisition. The colleges have mobile training units that can be used to quickly train workers to meet employers’ needs.
The governor’s bond proposal also includes $15 million to speed the clean up contaminated brownfield sites in Maine. Communities and developers are often eager to reuse the sites but redevelopment is slowed down by the need for cleanup and remediation. The are currently 251 sites that are being investigated or remediated, under the supervision of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Another 168 sites require long-term maintenance and operation, according to information from the governor’s office. Fifty new sites are discovered each year. Federal matching funds will be available for much of this work. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each $1 of public investment attracts nearly $17 in private development funds.
Mills’ proposal also includes what has become an annual part of bond proposals — $105 million for transportation work. Most of the money will go to road and bridge work, with $20 million allocated to ports, rail and airports, and $4 million allocated to culvert and stream crossing improvements. With more than 19 percent of the state’s bridges functionally obsolete, and 18 percent of state highway miles rated poor or unacceptable by the American Society of Civil Engineers, this work is essential. Yet, combined state and federal funding falls short of meeting transportation goals set in state statute by more than $100 million per year, Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note told lawmakers earlier this year. That gap will only grow as projects continue to exceed state cost expectations.
Using bond money to pay for repairs and maintenance is not sustainable. Lawmakers must get serious about raising the state’s gas tax and considering other fees to raise revenue for needed transportation work.
Democratic leadership in the Legislature is generally supportive of the governor’s bond proposal, which was substantially pared back from the more than $1.5 billion in borrowing that lawmakers proposed for consideration earlier this year.
Republicans are awaiting more details and want assurances that there will not be additional borrowing proposals over the biennium, House Republican spokesman John Bott told the Bangor Daily News.
Bott said Republicans believe the Legislature should consider voting on four separate proposals, the same way Maine voters will be asked to approve them. On its face, this seems like a reasonable request, but it allows lawmakers to vote for popular items — such as transportation borrowing — while rejecting other parts of the bond package.
Mills has presented a reasonable borrowing proposal to invest in a broad array of work that is needed to train Maine workers, lower energy costs, boost innovation and improve basic infrastructure.
As lawmakers debate and revise a bond package, they should maintain a focus on these key elements.