Will Maine get a ‘jobs bond’?
The question is: Can the governor and legislature agree on a transportation bond package before the legislature adjourns?
Two bond proposals have been making the rounds in Augusta during the past couple of weeks: a $99 million “Jobs Bond” proposal by a group of Democratic legislators and Governor Baldacci’s $79 million bond package that the governor says will “put people back to work.”
If a bond proposal can be hashed out in the weeks leading up to the legislative adjournment in April, it will go before voters on June 8.
Both borrowing plans come out of recent news that state revenue projections are somewhat rosier than they were thought to be in late 2009, making borrowing a more attractive way to deal with pressing infrastructure needs.
Both bonds also have strong transportation components (they include funding for energy and water safety projects, as well). The one proposed by Democratic legislative leaders calls for $72.5 million in transportation funding. The governor’s proposal includes $62 million that covers some of the same spending categories as the legislative proposal but also adds $9 million for marine transportation.
The two borrowing plans are being sold as home-grown economic stimulus plans, investments that will create and support Maine jobs as the state continues its slow recovery from the recession.
Senate President Libby Mitchell, who led the charge on the legislative proposal made public on March 2, called her group’s proposal “a timely and targeted jobs package that will make key investments in our infrastructure and keep Maine people working.”
Governor Baldacci presented his plan to news reporters at his office on March 10: “This is not a laundry list of ideas. Instead, it’s focused on investments to build Maine’s economic capacity into the future while creating jobs today,” he said during that meeting. His office said his bond plan would create or support nearly 1,900 jobs for Mainers.
While the emphasis on jobs could prove an effective strategy for selling a bond proposal to legislators – and eventually to Maine voters – the effort has far broader implications for Maine.
“Jobs are important, but the issues are even deeper than the much needed jobs these measures would support. It’s about long-term economic viability and safety,” said Senator Dennis Damon (D-Hancock), co-chair of the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“We have families and businesses that depend on roads that are crumbling before our very eyes. And we have a critical freight rail link that we could lose forever, and that is putting the entire northern Maine economy at risk. Maine has the revenues to support these infrastructure investments, and we cannot afford to wait,” said Damon.
Highway funding is a big component in both proposals. The governor’s bond would include $28 million for highway reconstruction and repair, plus an additional $3 million in matching funds for municipal road projects. The Democratic leadership’s proposal is stronger in this category, calling for $47.5 million for highway reconstruction and maintenance.
There is also rail investment in the two proposals. Governor Baldacci’s proposal sets aside $17 million for the purchase of 233 miles of rail line in northern Maine that Montreal Maine & Atlantic (MMA) plans to abandon, plus another $5 million for freight and passenger rail improvements to serve the Lewiston-Auburn region. The legislative proposal includes $20 million for the MMA line and matches the governor’s proposal for the Lewiston-Auburn rail projects.
The proposals also diverge on spending for marine transportation. The governor’s proposal includes $1 million in funding for SHIP (Small Harbors Improvement Program) matching grants and another $8 million for construction of the Ocean Gateway “mega berth” in Portland. The legislative proposal does not tag any money for marine investments.
The question is this: Can the governor and legislature agree on a transportation bond package before the legislature adjourns in April?
The sticking point will be, of course, legislative passage. While the bill has a strong following among Senate and House Democrats, Republican votes will be needed to get the two-thirds needed for passage.
Some Republican legislators have shown their willingness to listen, and one has come out in support of the bond. Senator Roger Sherman (R-Aroostook) was the only Republican on record supporting the legislative bond proposal (the MMA rail line purchase would support businesses in his region).
Other Republicans have been more reluctant. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye (R-Washington) said the size of the bond in both packages concerns him. “I think it’s still too large,” Raye told the Portland Press Herald after announcement of the governor’s smaller bond proposal. “It’s a step in the right direction. There’s significant concern among Republicans in the Legislature about our capacity for borrowing.”