Despite the state’s surplus and low interest rates Republicans only pass transportation bonds

 

By Ramona du Houx

Late in August 2019, Governor Janet Mills called for a special session to vote on the bonds.

The bond proposals were broken down into four separate bills instead of one package in order to get Republicans on board. But Republicans refused to send three critical bond proposals to expand broadband and training, protect the environment, and conserve land to Maine voters for their consideration.

That balance in the state’s rainy day, budget stabilization fund, is nearly $239 million. Along with low interest rates that puts the state on good standing for bonds. “The balance we have now in our budget stabilization fund is as high as it has ever been,” said Finance Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa.

Governor Janet Mills was disappointed by House and Senate Republicans refusal to vote in favor of needed bonds.

 “I entered the special session with a sense of hope – hope that legislators, regardless of party, would see the value of letting Maine people decide the fate of these critical bonds. And I had hoped that they would do so while interest rates are at historic lows,” said Governor Janet Mills.

 Republicans said no to everything except a transportation bond. An issue everyone in Maine can see needs an infusion of funding. An issue that might have been too risky not to address. 

“The transportation bond approved will provide needed funds to repair our roads, bridges, ports, rails and airports. It would also allow for important upgrades and investments in our transportation infrastructure. These are projects we need, and we are hopeful voters will agree this November,” said House Majority Leader Matt Moonen. “However, it is deeply disappointing that Republicans blocked the passage of other bonds that would support the growth of our economy.”

 Republicans said no to expanding broadband. No to heat pumps. No to conserving working waterfronts and family farms and lands for hunting. No to repairing National Guard facilities and no to providing capital equipment to career and technical education centers.

“The attitude displayed by Republicans is so much like what we see coming out of Washington and out of the White House. In Maine, people expect – and deserve – better. As a result of Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise, Maine people will not have the opportunity this November to vote for broadband in rural areas, for land and waterfront conservation, or for equipment to help our young people gain work in the trades,” said Mills. “I am disappointed, but I will continue to fight for these priorities because they are what Maine people want and what our economy needs to grow and thrive.”

The funding for career and technical education, or CTE really will hold up the progression of our workforce into areas of growth. 

“Career and technical education programs in Maine prepare thousands of our young people for jobs in the industries we need most. I am disheartened that my Republican colleagues continue to stand in the way of investing in our workforce,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “It has been 21 years since we put CTE on a bond and sent it to voters, as a result of today’s vote, it will be even longer. If we want to train the next generation of engineers, electricians, mechanics and more, we need to make a serious investment in our CTE schools.”

Two bond bills that would have protected the environment also didn’t pass. Traditionally, the Land for Maine’s Futures, which protects pristine wilderness areas of the state, usually passes by a large majority and the people of Maine readily vote for LMF.

Working waterfronts also are in desperate need of an infusion of bond funding but they’ll have to wait too.  Many of Maine’s industries rely on the state’s natural resources. And with the treat of climate change straining the environment, the need to invest in its health is greater than it has been. 

Another sector—research and development also in need of state backing, via bonds.

With the rainy-day fund as historic highs there is no better time to bond. Figueroa allocates twenty percent of the budget stabilization into the property tax relief fund. In addition, the state was able to set aside over $60 million to pay back funds drawn from the federal government after it decertified the Riverview Psychiatric Center in 2013, under the LePage administration, because of operating deficiencies. The hospital regained certification in January 2019, and state officials are currently negotiating with the feds on what is still owed. 

 In 2017 voters passed a small bond for $50 million directed at research and development. While it was something it barely scratched the R&D needs of the state. In order for Maine to make its technological mark in important sectors Maine should do more R&D bonding. Funds allocated by voters back during the Baldacci administration led to some of the most important technological breakthroughs that have been growing this sector in Maine. From the bridge in a backpack at the University of Maine to their offshore wind floating clean energy platforms this type of bonding has far reaching implications to grow the economy.

The Maine Technology Institute (MTI) received $45 million of the 2017 R&D bonds. MTI supports businesses in targeted technology sectors in the form of grants and low-interest loans. They previously received the lion share of the Baldacci administrations bonds as MTI distributes the funding to the best candidates.