Study: Maine Bond Questions on Ballot Usually Pass

Oct 23, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine — A newly released study finds that Maine sends more bond questions to voters than any other state. It also finds that bonds that do make the ballot are likely to pass.

That has implications for the $100 million in bond proposals on next month's ballot.

Not every state requires public approval for borrowing money, but among the 25 that do, Maine has the record for sending bond referenda to the voters. Since 1990 there have been 104 bonding proposals, compared with 68 in Rhode Island and 67 in California, second and third on the list.

Maine has more because the state constitution requires voter approval for any borrowing over $2 million that relies on the state's credit to repay those funds.

University of Maine at Farmington political science professor Jim Melcher conducted the study.

"In the early 90's when the economy was bad, a lot of bond issues had trouble," he says. "But in normal times, bond issues tend to do well, and the more broad people see the benefit being, the more likely they are to pass."

In fact, a little better than four of every five bonds proposed to the voters were approved over the three decades that were reviewed.

Melcher says most bonds pass because they need broad support in the Legislature in order to be sent to the voters in the first place. He says getting a two-thirds vote necessary in the House and Senate is sometimes very difficult.

Among all of the bond proposals, transportation bonds have traditionally had strong support, and Melcher thinks that will be the case with the $85 million package on next month's ballot.

"You almost never see a transportation bond lose unless it's really, really narrowly focused," he says. "People are not going to necessarily vote for a bridge here or an airport there or a dock over here."

Melcher thinks this transportation bond is in good shape with the voters, but he says the $15 million bond for senior housing on the ballot is less certain because it's not targeted for specific projects that voters can identify. And while there has been no organized opposition, Gov. Paul LePage has spoken against it during town meetings he has been holding around the state.

"We're going to use general obligation bonds to do housing for elderly," he says. "Sounds good! On the surface I'd do it in a heartbeat. Let me tell you this, it's the worst thing we could do."

The governor says he wants to reduce the state's overall bonded debt, and he says some of the projects that might be addressed through the bond could be funded through the Maine State Housing Authority. It has the ability to issue bonds on its own without voter approval.

But House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick and the sponsor of the bond proposal, says the need for senior housing is so large and growing, the state needs both his bond proposal and the Housing Authority's to meet the need.

"Maine is the oldest state in the nation," he says. "We have a crisis when it comes to affordable housing for seniors. And what this will be able to do is really put the priority where it needs to be and that is keeping seniors in their homes."

Eves is confident that voters will recognize the need to invest in more housing for seniors and expects this bond is only the first step in meeting the growing need for a variety of housing options for seniors.

He thinks both bonds will be supported by the voters next month.