AUGUSTA, Maine – A quick flip through a newspaper or TV channels and Maine voters may think that the only thing on the ballot next week is the combative three-way race for governor. But residents on Tuesday also will be asked whether they want to approve six bonds proposals totaling about $50 million that supporters say are crucial for spurring economic development.
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The groups promoting the borrowing measures say their biggest challenge has been trying to get their messages heard in a crowded election cycle dominated by contentious and competitive races for governor and Congress and a ballot question measure that would ban bear baiting, dogging and trapping.
"It's hard to get the space because it's all overrun by the political ads either for the referendum or those running for office," said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which is backing all six proposals. But, Connors said, he's "very hopeful that people will see (the bonds) for the value they bring to growing out economy and helping our people."
There is no organized opposition to the bond questions.
Among the proposals on the ballot is a $7 million bond aimed at bolstering the state's marine economy, such as its lobster and elver industries. The money would be competitively awarded to a coalition that includes several groups, like academic institutions and private sector businesses.
Supporters say there are several areas where Maine can improve to get the most bang for its buck out of its abundant marine resources.
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For example, Maine's elvers, also called glass eels, are currently sold to China, where they're put in aquaculture tanks and then sold to Japan, where they're processed and sold to northern Europe or back to the U.S.
Instead, the bond money could be used to build aquaculture tanks and processing facilities in Maine, making the industry more lucrative, said Mike Saxl, a former speaker of the Maine House who's running the campaign in support of the bond.
"We need to forge new relationships, develop new products and new markets to add value and wealth to the marine economy," Saxl said.
Other proposals on the ballot would put $10 million toward upgrading drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and $12 million toward programs that provide loans to small businesses. Several other bonds would fund research and development through the creation of new labs for the study of diseases, animals and plants.
Among those is an $8 million bond that would be used to build a new of lab for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension focused on the research of animals, plants and insects. The facility, which would be built on UMaine's Orono campus, would bring several existing university labs under one roof, which supporters say will make its research more effective.
The new biosecure lab would also allow researchers to do new things like test ticks to determine whether they carry Lyme disease. The larger facility would allow them to bring in full-size animals like moose to better detect and manage diseases that affect the animals.
Voters rejected a larger bond that included money for the proposed UMaine lab two years ago, but John Rebar, executive director of the cooperative extension, said it failed primarily because voters didn't understand where the money would go. This time around, officials have tried to make a better effort to explain how the public would benefit from the new lab.
Democratic House Majority Leader Seth Berry, who led the committee that crafted most of the bond proposals, said the investments would come at a crucial moment for Maine as it continues to struggle to regain the jobs it lost during the Great Recession.
"Many of (the bonds) are being promoted on shoestring budgets ... but I think they will pass overwhelmingly," Berry said. "The voters I've talked to have been very encouraged to know that we are finally talking about investing in innovation, which has been neglected for years now."
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