Maine governor advocates land conservation bonds

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Maine Gov. Janet Mills used her first State of the State address Tuesday to push a borrowing plan for land conservation that was rejected by the legislature last year.

Mills, a second-year Democratic governor, urged lawmakers in her speech to get behind a proposed bond initiative to replenish the Land for Maine’s Future program.

She tried unsuccessfully last year to get a $20 million land conservation bond referendum on the November 2019 ballot when the measure failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority approval in both houses of the legislature after GOP lawmakers opposed issuing more debt citing budget concerns.

“Maine people overwhelmingly support this program,” Mills said in her remarks of LMF, which hasn't had a bond issuance since 2012 after previous Gov. Paul LePage fought borrowing efforts for it. “Let us give them a chance to vote on a measure that will protect our environment, protect our fishermen and farmers, and grow the economy.”

The conservation bond proposal was among $58 million of debt measures Republicans helped defeat in a special late August session just before the deadline needed to reach the ballot. She had also advocated for bonds to fund broadband and workforce development that fell short. The GOP did back a $105 million transportation bond proposition that was ultimately approved by voters in November.

A $7.8 billion 2020-21 budget Mills signed last June anticipates as much as $300 million of bonding over the two-year period. Mills didn’t address any other 2020 bond plans in her speech, but the governor said she would consider using some general fund dollars to support necessary transportation enhancements. She noted that a three-year work plan the Maine Department of Transportation released last week showed “chronic underfunding” in maintaining infrastructure with a yearly shortfall of as much as $232 million.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Mills said. “There are no Democratic roads or Republican bridges.”

Mills also expressed a commitment to set aside $20 million into the state’s rainy day fund following a $19 million deposit last year. She noted that the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee and Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission have “cautious optimism” about Maine’s near-term economic prospects, but said it is important to prepare for a potential nationwide recession that may arise around the corner.

“We must be ready for any downturn, any changes,” Mills said. “We must remain resilient.”

Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings rate Maine general obligation bonds at Aa2 and AA, respectively. Both credit outlooks are stable.

Maine has $4.4 billion of gross tax-supported debt outstanding, including $376 million comprised of GOs, according to a May 2019 Moody’s report.

The brunt of Maine’s outstanding debt is secured by moral obligation bonds issued by the Finance Authority of Maine, the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, the Maine Health and Higher Education Facilities Authority and the Maine State Housing Authority.

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