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Maine Republicans Take Aim At Bond Proposals During Legislature's Special Session

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
The Maine State House is seen Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

Republicans in the Maine Legislature voted on Monday to stymie more than half of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ $163 million proposed borrowing package.

The Republicans’ decision to block sending all but a transportation bond to voters in November drew sharp criticism from Mills, who had called lawmakers back for a special session to address funding for a variety of initiatives, including conservation, rural broadband expansion and improvements to National Guard armories.

Republicans have signaled resistance to borrowing proposals unrelated to transportation since June, when the Legislature adjourned without enacting any bonds.

Back then, GOP leaders said they were worried about the amount of the proposed borrowing, and said the entire package should be divided into separate issues when presented to voters in November.

The governor responded by paring back her original proposal by $76 million and breaking it into four separate bills.

“So we did as they asked and now they’ve done nothing,” Mills said during a press conference in her office, called after it became clear midday Monday that Republicans would block all but her proposal for a $105 million transportation bond.

While Democrats control the House and Senate, they don’t have the two-thirds vote needed to send borrowing proposals to voters.

Typically, legislative votes on bond proposals are secured ahead of time, but Mills said she was unable to get firm agreements with Republican lawmakers ahead of Monday’s special session. And she said she was not pleased with their rationale for voting to kill most of her borrowing plan.

“I mean, I’m sorry, they’re acting like sheep,” she said. “Their leaders have stood up and said, ‘We don’t want to do anything until January.’ Well I don’t know what the interest rates are going to be in January.”

Republicans said their decision to block the other bonds was rooted in the uncertain state budget situation.

While they just helped to pass the state’s two-year budget that took effect July 1 — a budget that included $300 million to fund debt service on future borrowing proposals — Assistant Minority Leader Sen. Jeff Timberlake of Turner argued during Monday’s floor debate that there was no rush to pass borrowing plans other than for transportation.

“There is no emergency here today on these bonds. There’s nothing that nobody’s going to be thrown out or put out on the street, or any of those things,” he said.

Republican Senate Leader Dana Dow made a similar argument, adding that they are anticipating a supplemental budget proposal next year.

“We can and we should wait to consider these proposals so that we can make a more responsible decision once we know how much money we must find to cover the new, still unknown costs of a supplemental budget,” he said.

“There’s no supplemental budget. Is he asking for a supplemental budget? We’ve had no discussions with anybody about a supplemental budget,” Mills retorted.

Mills told reporters that it’s too soon to know whether a supplemental spending plan will be needed. But she said the time to send bonds to voters is now, because interest rates are at historic lows of less than two percent. She said that’s a good deal for Maine taxpayers, who could save tens of millions just on interest payments if voters approved any of her proposals in November.

“If they want to wait, wait for higher interest rates, I guess that’s their idea of financial responsibility. It’s not mine,” she said.

The finger pointing between Democrats and Republicans raged throughout the day Monday as both sides sought favorable press narratives. But undergirding the theatrics was an uncomfortable reality for the governor and Democrats: Republicans, while in the minority, had some leverage.

Earlier this year, the Maine Department of Transportation announced that it was halting $59 million in road and bridge maintenance because project bids exceeded the previous highway budget. It was bad news for a transportation agency that has repeatedly warned about the maintenance backlog amid rising construction costs and declining gas tax revenues.

That backlog could be worse without the governor’s proposed transportation bond, according to transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note.

"We could lose half the highway and bridge program just next year," he said.

Van Note said that’s about $350 million worth of projects. And that’s just the state’s highway and bridge program — nothing else.

The prospect of further delays in funding transportation projects could be devastating for Maine’s aging road and bridge infrastructure.

For the Mills administration, that outcome was also fraught with the potential for gloomy political consequences — consequences that prevented the Democrats and the governor from using the transportation bond as leverage to get GOP votes on other borrowing initiatives.

Despite the setback, Mills said Maine voters will know that the GOP denied them a chance to vote on proposals for rural broadband expansion, environmental cleanup, Maine Army National Guard facility projects and conservation projects in the Land for Maine’s Future program.

“The people are going to know who was on their side and the people are going to know who wasn’t on their side,” Mills said.