Most of the talk about bonding during the last legislative session had as much to do with politics as with sound fiscal policy.

Gov. Paul LePage, elected on a platform of fiscal conservatism, pledged in his inaugural address that Maine would issue no bonds, and he stuck to his guns during the budget process. State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin echoed the message, insisting — perhaps to the point of exaggeration — that Maine’s fiscal situation was so dire that it could not afford to incur another dollar of debt.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate initially appeared skeptical, saying that they knew the difference between good debt and bad debt, and noting that Maine’s critical infrastructure needs and strong credit rating would permit some investment. Eventually, however, the Legislature acceded to the governor’s preference and offered no bond package for voter approval this year.

We endorsed that decision, in part because it seemed clear that Maine voters had little taste for approving additional debt at any level of government. But we also urged the governor and the Legislature to revisit the no-bond policy in 2012 because, sooner or later, the state’s infrastructure needs must be addressed.

A state that depends on roads to get paper and forest products to market, and one that invites tourists to visit remote areas in their cars, cannot afford to be stingy about the condition of its roads.

Crumbling infrastructure inevitably leads to inconvenience, vehicle damage and serious safety concerns.

With tax cuts enacted (including an end to indexing the road-maintaining gas tax) and little availability of general fund revenue for transportation projects, continued refusal to borrow money will cause Maine’s transportation infrastructure to decline even further.

The fact is, Maine can’t continue to neglect bad roads and still claim to be fiscally responsible. The longer we wait to repair our roads and bridges, the more it will cost.

Ironically, perhaps, the sluggish economy makes this an ideal time to issue bonds. Interest rates are low, and construction companies hungry for work are turning in low bids. Under those circumstances, Maine taxpayers will get a good return on their investment.

When lawmakers reconvene in January, they should resist the arguments against borrowing that carried the day last session. Taking on a reasonable amount of debt to pay for durable infrastructure projects over time makes sense, just as borrowing money for home improvements or repairs make long-term sense for a homeowner.

There is also a short-term benefit: Spending on roads will put contractors to work, boosting private-sector demand. According to an analysis cited by the Maine Center For Economic Policy, every dollar spent on an infrastructure project results in $1.44 of economic activity, whereas $1 in tax reduction generates only 35 cents.

But bonding should not be primarily seen as an economic stimulus strategy. It should be looked at as a way to protect our economy by maintaining the existing transportation system.

The issuance of bonds to benefit the state has not been an ideological or political battle in the past and it shouldn’t turn into one now.

The Legislature should come together and design a bond package that could be sent to the voters next year.


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