In early June, Gov. Janet Mills introduced a $239 million bond package that sought to invest in Maine’s transportation infrastructure, economic and workforce development measures, environmental protection, and land conservation efforts. That proposal made sense two months ago, and even after being pared back in recent negotiations to $163 million and separated into four different items, it continues to make sense now.
All four individual elements of the bond proposal deserve the support of the Maine Legislature, which will have an opportunity to advance them to voters when lawmakers return for a special session Monday.
Ever since lawmakers adjourned in mid-June without reaching an agreement on bonding, it seemed possible, though never quite probable, that voters would miss out on a chance to weigh in on any bond questions at the ballot box in November. That would be particularly unfortunate in regard to transportation funding, where there is broad bipartisan recognition of the pressing need to invest in Maine’s roads, bridges, ports, rail and air infrastructure.
The American Society of Civil Engineers found that 19 percent of the state’s bridges are functionally obsolete and rated 18 percent of state highways poor or unacceptable. Clearly, there’s work to be done.
Though transportation is the most immediate bonding need, it’s not the only issue in this conversation requiring a sense of urgency.
Maine’s aging workforce and the new skills required in the 21st century economy have employers, educators and policymakers across the state scrambling to adapt. As the state works to build the workforce of tomorrow, forward-looking investment is needed today. A critical piece of that puzzle is Maine’s career and technical education program, commonly referred to as vocational education, which provides hands-on career training to high school and, increasingly, middle school students across the state.
It has been more than 20 years since Maine voters have had an opportunity to invest in the CTE system through referendum. The $4 million for equipment upgrades included in the economic development portion of the bond package is well below a $40 million bond proposal from a bipartisan group of legislators but would still help in an effort to better equip our students to compete in today’s economy.
There’s widespread, bipartisan agreement that Maine needs increased investment in internet access, particularly in rural areas. Just as our roads are critical connecting infrastructure, so too is internet access — connecting students, workers, businesses and entire communities to information and opportunity. The $15 million in bonding for broadband expansion is a start, but it won’t fix the state’s daunting connectivity challenges by itself. This is just a drop in the bucket for an economic development and education challenge that will continue to require public and private resources and attention.
The $4 million slated for upgrades at Maine National Guard facilities is expected to trigger matching federal investment, as are multiple other parts of the bond package.
Forward-thinking environmental investments can also help sustain and grow Maine’s economy. The $5 million that would be put toward cleaning up contaminated brownfield sites, for example, can bolster community health while serving as an economic development tool in order to make properties safer and more economically viable. Funding for drinking water infrastructure, in this case $5 million, is a frequent and understandably popular bond item. And another $5 million for weatherization and energy-efficiency projects can help Mainers lower their energy costs in the long run.
Conservation funding through the popular Land for Maine’s Future program took a back seat during the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage. Aside from being an irreplaceable part of Maine’s heritage, outdoor recreation is also a valuable contributor to the state economy. The LMF program also supports Maine’s working waterfronts, and helps preserve and secure commercial fishing access.
Special sessions and the added taxpayer expense they bring with them are not exactly reason to celebrate, but the alternative in this case — no bond questions on the ballot in November — was not a good one.
Given legislative Republicans’ continued insistence that each of the parts of the bond package be voted on separately — as voters would consider them on the ballot — each of the four pieces must stand on their own.
Mills and legislative leaders deserve credit for slogging through their differences, making some compromises and making sure that these proposals come back before the Legislature next week with at least a chance of passage.
“This revised proposal is a fair compromise that should garner bipartisan support in the Legislature,” Mills said in a statement on Monday. “I am asking lawmakers to take advantage of low interest rates, pass these critical bonds and send them to Maine voters for their consideration this November.”
We believe that each part of the bond package is a worthy and needed investment in Maine’s future. We hope that individual members will recognize the value of each individual bond proposal, and give voters an opportunity to do the same.