AUGUSTA — The state may soon get back into the borrowing business to maintain roads, bridges and sewers.

Whether Maine’s governor and Legislature are ready to borrow once again for research, conservation and other priorities is less certain, however.

Key Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they plan to develop a bond package to send to Maine voters for approval in June or November. And they expect Gov. Paul LePage to support some level of borrowing this year.

“There seems to be openness all around,” said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. But, he said, “We don’t want to go hog wild.”

LePage, who criticized state borrowing during the 2010 election campaign, said no to any bond package last year. The Republican-led Legislature went along with his wishes and it was the first time in at least two decades that lawmakers did not approve a borrowing proposal in the first year of a new session.

Proposals to borrow $50 million to $100 million for a variety of projects were carried over from last year to this year and will be part of the negotiations during the next several months.

While lawmakers say the LePage administration has signaled a willingness to take on new debt, the governor would not commit his support when asked to comment on Wednesday.

“At the present time, the governor believes the structural problems within the budget need to be fixed before he looks at any bond package,” said Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman.

Democrats and other advocates say the timing is ideal for a substantial borrowing package to repair roads and bridges, invest in research and finance land conservation, among others things. Interest rates are low and struggling contractors are eager for work, which will drive down costs, they said.

“People want to see something from their government to help put people back to work,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

The failure to borrow last year “left jobs on the table,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono. “There’s still an opportunity to get some of those jobs back.”

Republicans say periodic state investments in roads and bridges are needed and can help put people to work. But they also said the state has to be careful about borrowing on behalf of taxpayers when the economy is struggling and revenues to support existing services are uncertain or falling.

“We still are cautious about what the state’s debt tolerance is in these uncertain times,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden. On the other hand, he said, “If you don’t do certain things with roads and bridges, you’ll pay more later.”

Maine’s tax-supported debt per capita is $865, according to the state treasurer’s office. The national median is $1,066. Debt as a percentage of personal income is 2.4 percent in Maine, compared to 2.8 percent nationally.

Republican leaders said roads and transportation projects would be core pieces of any bond package this year. There also is some bipartisan support for sewer and water projects and some research and development.

Land conservation, education and other priorities will have a more difficult time making it into a bond package.

The contents of any bond package will be negotiated after lawmakers tackle more immediate problems, including the $221 million shortfall in the health and human services budget. A final borrowing proposal won’t be settled until spring.

Among those watching and waiting are road construction companies and businesses that rely on Maine’s road network, said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association. The group represents members of the transportation construction industry, as well as users of Maine’s highways and bridges.

A decline in other state and federal funding, and the lack of a bond package last year, has made it harder to maintain roads and harder to keep some contractors working, she said.

“We have aging infrastructure. For us (in Maine) it’s worse because we have so many miles of roads and not as many people paying for them,” Fuentes said. “The number of miles the state has actually been able to repair has been going down.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

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