AUGUSTA – Higher education officials were left scrambling for answers after unofficial election returns Wednesday indicated that funding for various construction and renovation projects at colleges across the state failed to pass muster with the voters.
According to unofficial results of Tuesday’s elections as tabulated by the Bangor Daily News, the $9 million bond issue on the ballot as Question 6 was defeated 197,005 votes to 194,649 with only four of 634 precincts statewide unaccounted for. All the other bond issues and the constitutional amendment passed.
The difference of 2,356 votes on Question 6 represents just three-fifths of one percent of the statewide total – close enough to trigger a recount should supporters of the bond issue request one, according to Melissa Packard, director of elections at the Office of the Secretary of State.
Packard said any election result that falls within a 2 percent margin was automatically eligible for a recount at the state’s expense.
In order to put a recount in motion, however, supporters of the bond issue would need to deliver a petition to the Secretary of State signed by 100 registered voters within two months.
If that should happen, Packard said, she believed it would mark the first time in state history that a bond issue was subjected to a recount.
“I can’t ever recall there being a recount on a bond issue,” she said.
Whether the bond’s supporters would request such a recount was up in the air Wednesday.
Alice Kirkpatrick, spokesperson for the Maine Community College System, said she expected officials would get together within a few days and review their options.
“We won’t make that decision until we have all the votes,” said Kirkpatrick. “We will talk with all our partners and see what’s the right thing to do. Right now we haven’t had that discussion.”
If it had been approved, the ballot proposal would have raised $5 million for the state’s seven community colleges, $2 million for work at five of the seven campuses within the University of Maine System, and $2 million for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine, the administrative center of the state’s growing Senior College program for people 55 and over.
Despite the close statewide totals, the proposal failed to win the support of 11 of the state’s 16 counties. Only in Aroostook, Cumberland, Knox, Sagadahoc and York counties did voters line up on behalf of the bond.
As is the case with all elections, the reason for the rejection of a measure or candidate always comes down to the individual preferences of the voter.
University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried speculated that a number of forces could have played a part in swaying those preferences, including the question’s position at the bottom of the ballot.
“Sometimes there can be a drop off. When you go to the end of the ballot and you say ‘Okay, I voted for this money and I voted for that money,’ then you get to the end and say ‘I’m not going to vote for this one,'” said Fried. “I don’t think it’s that unusual if you have a lot of them and one of them loses, especially at the end.”
Fried also noted that there seemed to be a lack of organized support for the proposal, unlike the other bond issues before the voters.
“There wasn’t really much of an argument made for it. There were ads for transportation and land preservation, but not for this. You can’t always assume people will vote for something if you don’t give them a reason to,” she said.
Fried said the fact that the projects were spread out and billed as renovations also may have hurt the bond’s chances. She said perhaps the voters viewed it as not accomplishing much or took the term renovations to mean “luxuries.”
Political analyst Christian Potholm of Bowdoin College had similar observations. Potholm noted that because the election cycle began a short time after the acrimonious budget debates in the state Legislature, voters could have been looking for spending targets. He said, without an aggressive campaign, he believed the university bond was predestined to fail.
“Usually the people like to vote down one or more of these. The weak ones need a good campaign because a good campaign can turn it around,” said Potholm. “They were all good ideas but in this kind of an environment you’ve got to really sell it. People wanted to throw anybody off the sled to the wolves and unfortunately for the university, that seemed to be the case.”
The loss was especially unsettling for the plans at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
USM executive director of public affairs Robert Caswell said the $2 million in state funds would have been used to leverage an additional $4 million in private funds.
That money would have been used to build a new classroom and administration building to house the learning institute and to set aside $2 million to support its programs.
The Osher institute was the first Senior College in Maine and, in addition to providing classes at USM, is the coordinating facility for the state’s other 15 senior colleges.
“As for what we’ll do, the short answer is, ‘We don’t know,'” said Caswell. “We still have a strong commitment for some type of facility for that program. Whether it will be with public or private funds, we don’t know at this point.”
In Tuesday’s election, the biggest bond issue, $33.1 million for transportation projects, got the most support from voters, winning by a margin of 68-32 percent, according to the unofficial results.
Most of the transportation bond funds will go to highways and bridges, including the Waldo-Hancock Bridge replacement, reconstruction of more than 100 miles of highways and replacement or rehabilitation of 84 bridges. The bond makes the state eligible for more than $158 million in matching federal funds.
The second-biggest borrowing proposal, $20 million, was pitched as an economic development and jobs bond aimed largely at medical and marine research and helping small companies. It won by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.
A $12 million bond issue to purchase land and conservation easements sailed through 65 percent to 35 percent. An $8.9 million proposal for clean water improvements, including sewage treatment plants, won 58 percent to 42 percent.
Maine voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to give tax breaks for waterfront property that supports the commercial fishing industry – 72 percent to 28 percent.
With the passage of the amendment, state Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, on Wednesday submitted legislation that would allow property used in commercial fishing to be taxed at its current use rather than its most profitable potential use. The tax break would be similar to those already given to farmers and woodlot owners in Maine.
Damon said he has seen the amount of working waterfront on Maine’s coast decline over the years.
“This decrease in fishermen’s access to the sea is in part due to soaring property values and, likewise, tax bills that have forced people off property that has supported fishing for generations,” Damon said. “This legislation is one small step toward fixing that problem.