May 17, 2012

Lawmakers OK 5 bonds; governor's input next

Voters could have their say in November

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Requests to spend money for helipads in rural communities, transit buses, and innovative research and development projects could go before voters in November following votes Wednesday in support of a series of bond bills.

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Staff photo by Joe Phelan LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, left, Majority Leader Jon Courtney, Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, Assistant Minority Leader Justin Alfond and Assistant Majority Leader Deb Plowman confer at the Senate rostrum before the bond debate began on Wednesday in the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, speaks during a debate on the transportation bond Wednesday afternoon in the State House in Augusta.The Senate passed several bond bill including onf for $51.5 million to fund highways, bridges and other transportation projects.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The House and Senate gave initial approval to five bonds as it wrapped up work for the year.

"This is one of the keys to growth in the state of Maine," said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston. "I know we all want an economy that's growing, that's robust."

As chairman of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, Rector lobbied fellow lawmakers to support a $20 million bond to fund research and development projects across the state. Other bonds approved will go for transportation ($51 million); higher education ($11.3 million); sewer and water projects ($7.92 million) and Land for Maine's Future ($5 million).

Pending final votes in both chambers, whether the bills go before voters this fall will largely be determined by Gov. Paul LePage, who is attending the Republican Governors Association meeting in North Carolina this week and won't review the bills until he returns from the three-day conference, said his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. LePage, who did not support any bonding last year, has 10 days to consider the bills.

While the bills earned strong support in both chambers, there were those who said the state is not in a position to borrow money.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, a former member of the Transportation Committee, said he planned to vote against all the bonds, even though the money for transportation would help repair roads in rural Maine. He said Maine still owes millions to hospitals.

"I need to be sure we're going to pay the bills before going forward," he said. "We didn't do a bond issue last year and the sky didn't fall."

That prompted Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, to say Maine is responsible when it comes to borrowing because it pays back debt in 10 years.

"It was completely reckless for the state of Maine not to bond last year," she said. "The need for infrastructure improvements was critical."

Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said he and other budget writers were comfortable with a bond package as long as it did not exceed $100 million. The total of the bonds that received initial approval was $95.6 million.

"We do have the ability to service that debt going forward," he said. "We think this is a reasonable total."

The largest bond would help pay for road and bridge repairs, industrial rail, port improvements in Searsport and Eastport and other projects. In the area of research and development, groups would have to bid for money to support renewable energy development, aquaculture, composites, and agriculture and forestry technology.

A separate bond for higher education would support community college expansion, the Maine Maritime Academy and an animal health lab.

Supporters of the Land for Maine's Future program described the $5 million borrowing request as modest, but important. The program uses the money to conserve land, while preserving access to sportsmen and loggers.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said lawmakers should talk to voters about the bonds.

"It's important we send a unanimous message of how important this bond package is," he said.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015


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