Maine’s roads and transportation infrastructure are in urgent need of a cash infusion. The $105-million transportation bond now slated for the November ballot will not go far enough, but if approved, the borrowed money will leverage an additional $137 million in matching federal funding. The total sum will help chip away at the state’s backlog of road and bridge repair projects.
Functional roads are essential to both the safety and livelihoods of Mainers. While we’d prefer that routine maintenance projects were paid for with budgeted — not borrowed — funds, the money does have to come from somewhere.
When Maine voters consider the issue at the November ballot box, an additional $58 million in conservation, broadband and infrastructure bonds will be notably absent from the ballot. Back in June, Governor Janet Mills proposed a $239-million bond package. Republicans balked at both the price tag and the prospect of voting on the bonds as a single package. The two sides couldn’t come to a consensus before the Legislature adjourned and were called back to the Statehouse for an August special session. To make the bond proposal more palatable, Mills reduced the total amount and divvied the bonds into four separate bills, calling it a “practical, responsible compromise.” Republicans didn’t bite. Only the transportation bond garnered the bipartisan support needed to pass.
Republican leaders said that legislators should wait and consider the additional borrowing in January, when they’ll have a better sense of how the two-year budget that began in July is performing. The bonds could be placed on the March ballot. Democrats said the delay was just “kicking the can” on necessary spending that should be undertaken now when interest rates are low. Funding for efforts such as land conservation, vocational training and high-speed internet expansion enjoy widespread favor and would likely fare well with voters. But then, most bonds do.
Maine voters approved 97 percent of bond measures between 2007 and 2017, rejecting just one 2012 measure that would have supported expanding the community college system in the state, according to Ballotpedia. So when Mills lambastes Republicans as “the party of no,” maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. Sometimes saying no can be the prudent choice, even if it means delaying important investments.
Maine is falling behind. Infrastructure has worn down. Broadband expansion in rural areas — crucial to the continued economic viability and survival of small towns — is in desperate need of funding. Employers need more skilled workers. The Land for Maine’s Future program, which conserves waterfront for the fishing industry, farmland for farmers and open space for everybody, has not been replenished since 2012.
The state needs to strategically invest in its future, but it also needs to keep its fiscal house in order. Lawmakers should continue working toward a bipartisan strategy to make it happen.