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Maine Mayors Stump for Approval of Bond Issues on Ballot
10/29/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A group of city mayors, educators and contractors want Mainers to support all five statewide bond questions when they go to the polls next Tuesday. The bonds, totalling nearly $150 million, are being touted as job creators in Maine, which hasn't considered any bonds for the past three years. Proponents of the borrowing proposals for transportation, the state armories and education say low interest rates make this the right time to assume more debt. But some critics say Maine is already in too deep financially. A.J. Higgins has more.

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The coalition says hundreds of millions of dollars in matching funds, and thousands of jobs, are at stake in next Tuesday's election.  Question 3 is the largest one - a transportation bond worth $100 million. Question 4 is the smallest - $4.5 million to benefit the Maine Maritime Academy. 

Augusta Mayor Bill Stokes says all the bond issues could have a significant impact on the state's future. "All of them are extremely important to the economic vitality and prosperity of our state," Stokes says.

Gov. Paul LePage flatly refused to consider bonds for two years following his election and only released the bond proposal approved by voters this year as part of a deal with the Legislature to repay Maine's hospital debt.

LePage is supportive of the bond package that Maine voters will consider next week, particularly Question 2, which provides more than $15 million to the state university system for facilities upgrades that will enhance science technology, engineering and math -- also known as STEM.

Dr. Allyson Hughes Handley is the president of the University of Maine at Augusta. "These are the job opportunities of the furture, and the infrastructure and the buildings of all seven campusus of the University of Maine system are aging, many of them are 20 to 25 years old," says Hughes Handley.

The majority of the $100 million in Question 3 - the state's transportation bond - will address improvements in the state's roads and bridges.  But Tom Gorrill, of the Maine Better Transportation Association, says there's more at stake than just reconstruction projects. He says every time that the state sends the message that it's not interested in infrastructure improvements, Maine workers leave the state.

"We lose young people in our industry south because look at Virginia, look at other states in the nation and they're certainly doing  more with infrastructure than we tend to do," Gorrill says.

Staff and students at the Maine Maritime Academy are pushing hard for approval of Question 4 that would infuse more than $4 million into an ongoing fundraising effort that the school has underway for a new center for science, engineering and research. Capt. Robert J. Peacock is chair of the MMA board of trustees.

"Every dollar of bond funding from the state will be matched by more than $2 of funds raised by the academy, the state will get a $14.5 million building for an investment of $4.5 million," Peacock says.

A little more than $15 million in Question 5 would be used to expand existing facilities at the state's seven community college system campuses. Barbara Woodlee, chief academic officer at the Maine Community College System, says the bond is nothing less than the preservation of the state's work force.

"Fully 92 percent of Maine's community college graduates who enter the workforce after graduation are employed and work in Maine, and of the students attending community colleges, 93 percent are Maine residents, so this really is a basic investment in the Maine economy," Woodlee says.

Despite the economic benefits, the Maine Heritage Policy Center is urging restraint when it comes to approving bonds. Scott Moody is the center's CEO.

"Right now, Maine's unfunded pension liability is still very large, despite the reforms we had a couple of years ago, so you need to think about the larger debt situation and not necessarily the specific in terms of whether these debt bills should pass," Moody says.

Proponents of the bond package argue that without infrastructure investment, Maine may not have a workforce to contribute  toward the larger debt.



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