Sparring Over $1.2 Billion Bond Proposals Intensifies At State House
Lawmakers met at the State House Monday to discuss more than 30 bond packages that have caused a battle between Republicans and Democrats.The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee invited a series of speakers they hoped would provide some insight before they decided what to do with the 33 bond proposals totaling over $1 billion on their to-do list.Charles Colgan, a former state economists told the committee that with interest rates at record lows, the time to borrow is now.”So we do have borrowing capacity. We can’t go hog wild, but there is room for us to borrow money,” Colgan said. “Now is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to take advantage of low interest rates in the bond market.”Governor LePage and Republican lawmakers want a $100 million transportation bond fast-tracked so it can be on the ballot in November and the funds available for the 2014 construction season. That bond package allots $81 million for improvement to highways and bridges and $19 million for improvements to multimodal facilities that would support projects such as major development on the Portland waterfront. In a written statement LePage said time is of the essence.”Democratic leadership so far has failed to act, and timing is critical. The Secretary of State’s Office needs bonds approved for the November ballot in the middle of August. The early deadline ensures our military troops overseas receive an opportunity to vote – surely a right our uniformed men and women deserve,” LePage said. Coming on the heels of a two-year budget passed by lawmakers that included tax increases, staring down the barrel of a plethora of bond packages is a tough pill for Republicans to swallow. “It’s a matter of prioritizing and our priority, obviously, is to look at a transportation bond because of what it does for our infrastructure and what it does for jobs,” said House Republican Leader Ken Fredette.Democrats are calling this sense of urgency a political stunt. They want to come up with a comprehensive bond package that includes, among other things, money for Maine’s colleges, universities and community colleges as well as land preservation.”Just to say it’s all about roads and bridges doesn’t take into consideration our workforce, the development, the research that’s necessary in order to get these projects going,” said new Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell.Representatives from the colleges and universities were on hand to plead their case. Those who weighed in included Ryan Low from the University of Maine System, Maine Maritime Academy President Bill Brennan and Gary Crocker, who represented Maine’s Community College Systems. All of them touted the immense benefits bond money would have on their respective campuses.”We have $140 million worth of identified capital needs,” Crocker told the committee. “We’ve winnowed that down to $15 million of critical requests. $13 million of that would be spent on capital repairs, renovations, new construction.”While most of the those invited showed up to testify, there was one notable absence. David Barnhardt, Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, was a no-show at the hearing. Barnhardt sent a letter to the committee, but no one from DOT was available to answer follow-up questions. His absence frustrated Appropriations Chair, Senator Dawn Hill.”I have to share my disappointment in a department of that size not being able to send anyone to discuss this,” Hill said. “This committee has great work to do, and it’s important to the people of Maine. If we can’t get people here to address our questions, we are somewhat compromised.” Meanwhile, Republicans accused Democrats of employing stall tactics not only relating to the transportation bond, but all session long.”If anyone is to suggest that the lack of the work that we were not able to get done in the last six months is reflective purely of the fact that Democrats wanted to play politics, make this governor look bad, make Republicans look bad,” Fredette said. “They are simply focused on winning back the governor’s office in 2014. I think that’s unfortunate for the people of the state of Maine.”Democrats called that accusation “a real stretch” and were quick to point out that if Republicans were in such a hurry to pass the transportation bond package, perhaps making the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation available to answer questions would help expedite the process.”The commissioner of the Department of Transportation isn’t a Democrat. And the fact that he’s not here and the process is slowing down certainly doesn’t mean that he’s trying to get a Democratic governor,” Haskell said.The democratic lead on the committee said they’ll continue discussions on a final bond package later next month at the earliest, but that likely will not happen in time to be on the ballot in November.