Politics & Other Mistakes: Red-ink remover

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Attention fanatic right-wingers. As unlikely as it seems, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills just proposed something you ought to like.

If such a possibility causes your arch-conservative anatomy to suffer spasms of nausea, disorientation or heart palpitations, stay calm. Have a soothing cup of non-organic, pesticide-laden tea harvested by exploited workers. Maybe a biscuit with extra gluten and preservatives. And to further soothe your ideologically rigid soul, here’s some other news that’ll reinforce your extremist world view.

Al DiamonThe rest of the Democratic Party is already hard at work canceling out Mills’ uncharacteristic initiative.

In her recently presented biennial budget, Mills broke with tradition by allocating a whopping $400 million for roads, bridges and other transportation projects. That may not appear appealing to penny-pinching Republicans, but this spending would allow the state to avoid something the GOP usually opposes: debt.

“We’re making historic investments in Maine’s physical infrastructure,” Mills told a State House news conference. “We’re not suggesting the need for any bonding at this point.”

That would be an historic change from usual budget practices, which had called for bond issues of $50 million or $100 million nearly every year to pay for paving highways, repairing overpasses and if there’s any money left over, maybe upgrade a bike path or two. It’s important work that has to be done to prevent our transportation system from crumbling away. Or at least, crumbling away quite as quickly.

But keeping traffic flowing comes at a cost. Not only does the state (by which I mean you) have to pay back that $100 million, usually over the next five years, but it (you again) also has to cover the interest on that loan. Given the recent boost in borrowing rates, that amounts to millions of additional dollars.

Mills’ plan to pay for these projects upfront will save that extra money. If the pay-as-you-go idea caught on in future budgets, it could mean significant savings for taxpayers.

Maine currently has about a half-billion dollars in outstanding general obligation bonds. That debt will eat up nearly $98 million in principal and another $27 million in interest this year. The amount we’re paying on bonds could cover over half what’s needed to keep our roads and bridges in decent shape. If we stopped borrowing now, in as little as five years, we’d have all that extra dough to use for something productive.

There is, however, a reason why that won’t happen. That’s because transportation isn’t the only thing that gets bonded. In past years, the state has gone into debt to cover the costs of research and development (no one knows if that actually resulted in any public benefit), business development (no one knows if that worked, either), broadband expansion (my internet connection is so slow, I can’t check to see if that occurred), affordable housing (Republican Gov. Paul LePage refused to release the money for so long, construction costs went up and less of it could be built) and land conservation (oddly enough, a reasonable idea).

In that grand tradition, legislators — mostly Democrats — have proposed 17 bills that call for borrowing money for an array of purposes. The exact amount of these bonds won’t be known until the measures are printed, but it seems safe to assume the combined total will dwarf Mills’ proposal for transportation.

Here are a few of the swell ideas lawmakers have for driving us deeper in the hole:

A bond “to Stimulate Investment in Maine’s Marine Technology and Aquaculture Sector.”

One for “a Jail in Caribou.”

“Portland Harbor Dredging.”

“Arts and Cultural Facilities.”

“Construction of a Facility to Manufacture and Distribute Insulin.”

“Protect Union Wharf and Sustain Maine’s Maritime Industries.”

“Promote the Design, Development and Maintenance of Trails for Outdoor Recreation and Active Transportation.”

“Upgrade Municipal Culverts at Stream Crossings.”

These proposed bonds might be perfectly sensible (except that insulin one), but they could just as easily be funded through the budget process, sparing the poor taxpayer from the burden of additional debt.

Fortunately, there’s a way taxpayers (including far-right fanatics) can make that happen. All general obligation bonds must be approved by the voters, which means the average citizen can force fiscal prudence upon our legislators by simply voting no.

Loan me your thoughts by emailing [email protected].

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