The Maine Legislature is slated to debate more than $2.1 billion in bonds when they reconvene next session, a staggering figure when consider the level of spending recently approved in the biennial budget (a list of all the bonds carried over to the second session can be found here). However, the bond bill receiving the most attention is LD 1836, which would, if approved, introduce a bond question to the public on the issues of infrastructure, economic development, workforce development, energy and the environment.
The grand total for these initiatives would be $239 million:
- $105 million for transportation infrastructure
- $65 million to “replenish” the Land for Maine’s Future program
- $50 million to expand broadband access
- $19 million to expand education and training in the trades
Bonds require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to be sent to voters for consideration at the ballot box. While the political composition of the legislature favors Democrats (who largely support these bonds), they still need to convince some Republicans to vote in favor them, or wait until enough are absent, for them to pass. When the legislature voted on the bond package within LD 1836 before adjourning in June, it failed to garner enough votes to be passed in the Maine House of Representatives — the bill was just one vote short of passage.
During the debate surrounding LD 1836, Republican leadership expressed concerns that all of the spending items were grouped together in a package rather than being voted on separately by the legislature. To solve this issue, Rep. Trey Stewart introduced an amendment that would retain only the infrastructure portion of the bond package — something on which both sides of the aisle could agree — but only 45 representatives voted in favor of the amendment and 90 voted against it. Thus, the amendment failed to acquire enough support and the original bill was carried over to the next session.
There is speculation that Governor Janet Mills will soon call on the legislature to convene a special session to consider her bond package again in order for it to appear on the ballot in November. Conservatives in the legislature are the last line of defense to prevent these issues from appearing as one bond package on the ballot.
Since 1951, more than 80 percent of the 265 bond issues that have been considered by voters passed at the ballot box. Between 2000 and 2018, 94 percent were approved by voters. Based on this information, voters are likely to approve the governor’s bond if it receives ballot access regardless of whether it is as one package or separated.
Instead of spending $239 million in bonds over the biennium, the legislature should have budgeted appropriately to fit these items in the two-year spending plan. According to the fiscal note on the governor’s bond package, Mainers would be responsible for paying approximately $57 million in interest on top of the $239 million originally borrowed. This is not only fiscally irresponsible, but it would be a great disservice to Maine taxpayers.
If these bond issues come before voters, they are simply not worth the interest or overall debt the state would incur. The $57 million in interest would be better spent on reducing waitlists for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, bolstering the rainy day fund or reducing the individual income tax.
It’s time for our lawmakers to stop approving new borrowing and find a way to include their “priority” spending items in the biennial budget.