December 04, 2019
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Getting together for some bonding time

Chris Bouchard | Aroostook Republican
Chris Bouchard | Aroostook Republican
Construction crews with the Maine Department of Transportation work on reconstructing the storm drains on High Street as flaggers guide traffic at the roadway's Main Street intersection.

Special sessions in Augusta aren’t all that special.

They cost additional taxpayer money, often represent a failure to deal with issues within the regular session time frame and haven’t been all that rare in recent years.

There have been special sessions each of the last two years, and even with all of that said, we’d still like to extend that streak to three.

When legislators wrapped up and went home in June, they did so without resolving disagreements over how to proceed with a proposed $239 million bond package from Governor Janet Mills. The four-part package — which would place $189 million in borrowing on the ballot in 2019 and $50 million in 2020 — looks to invest in transportation, conservation, economic and workforce development, and broadband.

Previous inaction on the bond proposal was, in part, a function of a flawed process that led to last-minute, late-night deliberations about hundreds of millions of dollars that should have happened earlier in the nearly six-month session. It was also a result of inflexibility from both sides. Democrats wanted to vote on the bond proposals as one package, and Republicans said it was too costly and wanted the pieces of the package voted on separately.

Without a solution to this stalemate, Mainers will miss out on a chance to weigh in on important state investments.

The secretary of state’s office has said it needs any potential bonds by the end of August in order to print the ballots for November’s election on time. We continue to hope that the Legislature will reconvene this month, in time for a new round of negotiations that leads to some sort of bond package going before the voters in November. But the clock is ticking.

The time crunch is not good across the board, but the prospect of failing to send bonds to the voters is particularly worrisome in the transportation realm, where the Maine Department of Transportation says it needs the bond funding — and members of both parties generally agree.

Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note told the BDN his agency would be in “a world of hurt” going into the 2020 construction season without the bond, echoing similar warnings from the department throughout the summer.

The need is real, even if the overall practice of turning to $100 million bonds each to fund transportation projects is flawed. Van Note acknowledged that while “bonding will always be a piece of the puzzle,” relying on this uncertain funding source to match critical, multiplying federal funds is not the best approach.

“In some ways, it feels like putting your groceries on a credit card,” Van Note said.

He is looking to see if the state’s current blue ribbon commission on transportation funding can come up with “better, more predictable” funding sources.

We see the value in each of the elements of Mills’ bond package, and believe these are investments on which Maine can’t afford to drag our feet. But we also see an immediate need for the transportation bond, and the continued reality that even though many Republicans support it, they appear unwilling to budge from their stance on separating it from the rest of the package.

“The caucus is of a mind, all of us together, that if they are all bundled together, they will not have the support of the House Republicans,” House Republican Kathleen Dillingham told the BDN.

Negotiations are ongoing. Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, has floated a smaller $169 million package to gauge the situation. The big roadblock in June was the size of the bond proposal and how it was packaged together. An assessment of Maine’s long term needs should continue to be the priority in this bond conversation. Figuring out a procedural path forward comes next.

We’re not sure what any potential bond deal could ultimately end up looking like, and we’re not going to urge legislators to head back to August if there’s no deal in sight. That would be a waste of time and taxpayer resources. But we do know at least one thing: it would be a shame to see a time-sensitive transportation bond that almost everyone seems to agree on get run over by political inflexibility.

Mills’ office says the governor “is continuing to bring lawmakers together to pass a bond package that invests in our economy and addresses the most critical challenges facing our state.” Her office did not respond to a question about whether the governor could potentially support voting on each part of the bond separately as a means to move the conversation forward.

We don’t want to see the other elements of the package fall by the wayside, but the Democratic legislative majorities and Mills administration may end up having a choice to make: let each of the bond package elements stand on their own merits and risk some not advancing to the voters, or see the entire proposal, including the popular transportation bond, falter.

Being in control, after all, comes with its responsibilities and tough choices.

 



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