What’s wrong with a little bondage?

Phil: Gov. Paul LePage lets four bond packages go to the November ballot without his signature (indicating he does not support them but will let the people decide) and vetoes the fifth calling for $20 million in research and development. True to form, LePage is demonstrating principle over politics, don’t you think?

Ethan: Principle over politics? Principle would have been vetoing all the bonds or actually signing the ones he agrees with. Instead he plays both sides. Out of one side he gets to tell the Tea Party, “See, I didn’t sign off on all this spending.” But out of the other, he gets to say to the business community, educators and hunters, “See, I didn’t block all this investment.” I might be willing to congratulate him for his political skills playing both sides of an issue, but principle over politics? Not quite.

Phil: Don’t you think it’s interesting that the people who receive government spending call it “investment,” but it’s called “spending” by those who have to pay the debts plus interest? When I was on the Appropriations Committee during the Angus King administration, I learned about the art of selling debt. They hyped the fact that for every dollar we spent/invested there was this irresistible 4-1 “multiplier effect.” So here’s my question: Where are all the great jobs from the hundreds of millions we’ve borrowed in the past?

Ethan: Where are all the jobs? Ask the teachers teaching your kids. Ask the cops and firefighters driving the new safety equipment to protect your home. Ask the men and women who pave the roads you drive every day. Ask the service sector employees who take care of the tourists who come to see the land preserved through the Land for Maine’s Future program. Ask the employees at the Jackson Laboratory, which has become the largest genetics research institute of its kind in the country, thanks to state investment through bonding. Oh, and by the way, we who benefit from bonds also pay the interest.

Phil: Come on, Ethan. Teachers, cops, tourist workers are operating expenses not capital investments. With the possible exception of roads and bridges, you would be hard pressed to demonstrate that these “investments” are paying dividends. Education? Why is it that close to 25 percent of students aren’t graduating from our high schools? Water and sewer? Isn’t that what the Maine Municipal Bond Bank is for? Land for Maine’s Future? Great idea when it started, but today I hear the Department of Conservation can’t afford to manage the land we’ve already acquired, not to mention the lost real estate taxes when bond money takes private property off the rolls.

Ethan: Teachers, cops and tourist workers all work within the improvements purchased through bonds. Bonds preserve land that tourists come to see. In turn businesses are built and workers hired. Bonds build better schools, which reduce operating costs and attract more families. In turn, we hire more teachers. Bonds invest in R&D, so Jackson Lab builds a better mouse trap, makes more money and hires more people.

Phil: Roads and bridges are true capital investments worthy of long-term borrowing. And when combined with private investment, like the proposed east-west highway, we can create an environment where economic growth can take root.

Ethan: OK, so roads are cool. How about schools? Who should pay for schools? How about waste-water treatment? How about dredging the Penobscot River? How about prisons? If the state doesn’t pay for these essential services, you know as well as I do that no one will.

Phil: You’re not listening. Schools get state funding through the education budget. The Municipal Bond Bank is in business to lend money to towns for such things as sewer and water. Let’s pay for expenses of running the show from current tax revenue and only borrow for bricks and cement that will still be standing after the debt is repaid. Oh, and let’s stop the gimmicks that have enabled hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to be run up without voter approval. Remember how the Governmental Facilities Authority, created under the McKernan Administration, was exploited by the King Administration to avoid voter scrutiny?

Ethan: Now who’s the one not listening? No one argues that operating expenses should come from bonding. In fact, the Maine Constitution prohibits it! But just like a business, there are many reasons to borrow beyond bricks and mortar, especially when interest rates are this low. Companies borrow to hire workers in an area they want to grow, to do research into ways they can become more efficient or to buy an idea that might make them money down the road. C’mon Phil, you always argue that government should be more like a business. But since we’re just about out of space, let me ask, are you voting yay or nay this fall?

Phil: I’ll be voting for highways and likely will pass on the others. Can we assume you’ll vote for them all?

Ethan: You bet! And I will look forward to the new jobs, economic growth, land preservation, better-educated students and cleaner environment. This, my friend, is government at its best and most vital.

Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman are former state senators. Their column appears online every Friday and in print on Saturdays. They are also political commentators on your local NBC affiliate and WGAN Radio.


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