AUGUSTA — After taking a break last year from endorsing state borrowing for public projects, Maine lawmakers on Thursday began considering a list of more than two-dozen bond issue proposals totaling nearly $600 million.
The Appropriations Committee began two days of public hearings on the borrowing proposals, which call for projects ranging from highway and rail line improvements to global seafood marketing. The largest, which came up Friday, calls for $200 million to build a privately operated container port on Sears Island.
Last year, the Legislature decided not to ask voters to approve any borrowing in an effort to chip away at the state’s debt load. While lawmakers this session are considering the possibility, there’s no guarantee any borrowing proposals will pass in the Legislature.
According to the state treasurer’s office, Maine had $520 million in general obligation bond debt as of June 30. Tax-supported debt per capita is $865, much lower than the national median of $1,066, the treasury says.
The Appropriations Committee’s House Chairman, Rep. Patrick Flood, said the committee will review all of the proposals and consult with legislative leaders to see whether any new borrowing is called for. If any bond package emerges at all, it will be much smaller than the total now on the table, said the Winthrop Republican.
Any bond package would likely appear in no more than three or four bills, said Flood. The committee would let the governor take the lead if he decides to submit a package, he added.
Gov. Paul LePage is not actively considering a bond package but “the door’s slightly ajar,” said his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.
“We still have a significant chunk of the budget to deal with. The governor believes we need to be in a healthy fiscal state before we take on more debt,” said Bennett.
Democrats have called for a bond package, which they say would create jobs and help revitalize the state’s economy.
The nonprofit GrowSmart Maine testified Thursday in favor of four of the bills before the committee Thursday, saying the state would benefit from the strategic use of bonding for economic development, research, infrastructure improvements and conservation.
The largest, $100 million, would provide funds for transportation, land protection, and the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System to train people who want careers in the tourism industry.
Among the other groups submitting testimony was the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in favor of $1 million in bonds to complete the renovation of the wharf and bulkhead at its site in Portland Harbor.