Task force optimistic about resolving Maine’s highway funding crisis

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Lawmakers hoping to bridge the gap between available revenue and the cost of maintaining Maine’s roads and bridges suggest it’s possible they may finally reach agreement on how to eliminate the shortfall that amounts to nearly a third of all Highway Fund spending. 

The Blue Ribbon Commission to Study and Recommend Funding Solutions will work overtime during the session that begins Jan. 8 and adjourns April 15.

State Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, is co-chairman of the commission studying ways to eliminate the state’s highway funding shortfall.

“We’re still far from a deal,” the task force co-chairman, Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, said recently. But the in-session work wouldn’t have been scheduled at all were the legislators not making progress.

It’s been a long time coming. The main dedicated support of the Highway Fund – the fuel tax – has had a flat rate of 30 cents a gallon for gasoline since 2011. Its purchasing power steadily declines through inflation, even as it is eroded by sharply higher construction costs.

No one likes to vote for increased taxes, especially in an election year, and making up the gap solely with fuel taxes would nearly double the tax, McLean pointed out – a political impossibility. So funding is needed from varied sources, and McLean said Democrats are open to discussion.

For Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, the biggest issue, if there is a gas tax increase, is it must curtail the annual General Fund borrowing voters have approved for the Highway Fund. Since 2015, bonds totaling $501 million have been approved, yet the annual shortfall keeps growing – it’s now $232 million.

State Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta: Raising the gas tax means reducing General Fund borrowing.

McLean said the commission wants to find $160 million in new revenue or reductions in Highway Fund spending, and inform the federal government it’s time to help states with the remainder. The federal tax – 18.4 cents per gallon – hasn’t budged since 1993. Although McLean admits congressional action this year is unlikely, he said “we’ve got to keep the pressure on. We can’t do this alone, particularly the small states.”

Rep. Tom Martin, R-Greene, said many legislators were skeptical about the shortfall, figuring Maine DOT isn’t using its budget efficiently. “That’s been put to rest,” he said. “We looked at that exhaustively.”

Martin chaired a subcommittee that rounded up suggested funding possibilities – some exotic, including a toll to get onto Mount Desert Island, congestion pricing around Portland, themed lottery tickets, and surcharges on car washes.

In the meat-and-potatoes category are possible increases in license and inspection fees, dedicating a portion of sales tax revenue from car and truck purchases – $160 million a year – and an electric vehicle registration fee.

State Rep. Tom Martin, R-Greene: Suspicions about DOT budget management have been “put to rest.”

Not prominent on the commission agenda, but often discussed in the past when traffic patrol represented the bulk of the work, is the Highway Fund assessment for State Police costs. The assessment has declined, but it’s still $18 million annually, and could be redirected toward design and construction.

Using the General Fund to support the Highway Fund was once verboten for Democrats, but recent bond issues may have changed that. McLean doesn’t rule out further diversions from the General Fund, as long as there’s bipartisan support for a fuel tax increase.

Other attitudes have shifted, too. 

Traditionally, contractors supported gas tax increases and truckers opposed them. Trucking groups now support an increase of 5-7 cents per gallon; at 7 cents, that would produce $49 million. And indexing the tax to inflation could resume; it was in effect for a decade until its repeal under former Gov. Paul LePage’s first budget.

For Republicans, any tax increase should be limited, and recognize that the General Fund has, by comparison, been doing very well. Tom Desjardins, spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said this is a top priority. 

“If we don’t have to tax it, we shouldn’t,” Desjardins said. “With record surpluses in the General Fund, surely some of the money can go to transportation.”

Details surely matter, and the specifics of any package will prompt protracted debate. The commission has scheduled eight more meetings before its new reporting deadline of Feb. 14.

Yet there’s reason for optimism, Maine DOT spokesman Paul Merrill said: “They’ve already accomplished a lot. Just raising the visibility of the issue is an achievement in itself.”

McLean said if a funding package is approved, it will happen only with strong bipartisan support. But could that occur so close to an election? 

“There are always political reasons not to do this,” he said. “But the situation is dire. If we don’t do something soon, we’ll see the long, slow decline of Maine’s infrastructure, and no one wants that to happen.”

Douglas Rooks has covered Maine issues for 35 years as a reporter, editorial writer, columnist and former editor of Maine Times.

Short session will be long on health-care discussion

Issues surrounding health care are a top priority for Democrats and Republicans as the Legislature reconvenes this week for a traditional “short session” that runs through mid-April. 

Most bills are held over from 2019 or of an “emergency” nature – as the Legislative Council defines it – and the agenda is much shorter than last year, when 1,744 bills were introduced.

We asked the four legislative offices, and the governor, to identify priorities.

In a statement, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, after enumerating first-year accomplishments that included Medicaid expansion, renewable energy initiatives, and an economic development plan, said, “I look forward to working with the Legislature to continue to tackle health insurance issues, to support quality early and adult education, to strengthen our economy and expand our workforce, and to protect Maine people from the impacts of climate change.”

State Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash: The main concern is “health care, health care, health care.”

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, described a tour dubbed “Fighting for Maine,” where Democratic legislators held town halls around the state. Voters’ main concern, Jackson said, is “health care, health care, health care.” 

While acknowledging it’s “hard to make significant changes” absent willingness in Congress, he said, “we’ve got to do it.” Democrats passed legislation on prescription drugs last year, including imports from Canada; continuing to improve the Medicaid program they dramatically expanded is a key objective.

Jackson said he gets dozens of calls from constituents who can’t navigate hospital and insurance bureaucracies, and said another priority is a state ombudsman program, so frustrated consumers “can call and get their health-care issue resolved. Where they got a bill six months later, and can’t understand it.” Jackson said, “I often don’t know the answers, but someone in state government has to, so people can get urgent questions answered and resolved.”

Senate Republicans spotlight nursing homes. With seven recently closing, and more likely to follow, spokesman Tom Desjardins said, “The minimum wage just went up to $12, but nursing home reimbursements haven’t risen.”

Desjardins said the situation is critical. Some nursing homes have converted to assisted living centers, with fewer regulatory requirements, but still struggle to find employees at wages they can afford to pay. 

“With record surpluses, and $2.8 billion in new spending this biennium” – a figure including federal funding for Medicaid expansion – “we can definitely find the money,” he said.

In a statement, House Republicans said they’re also focused on direct-care workers, and disability waiting lists, while cautioning about using new surpluses – an estimated $142 million. 

“This money should not be used for new programs,” Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said, “but prioritized to fund existing needs.”

House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democratic candidate for the U.S Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Susan Collins, promised to “start with protecting our health care and making it more affordable and accessible … while addressing the skyrocketing costs of lifesaving drugs like insulin and continuing to fight the opioid crisis.” 

In cooperation with Mills, Gideon said, “we will continue to forge solutions to mitigate climate change and, using her 10-year strategic economic development plan as a guide, we will … meet this challenge while growing jobs and industries.”

— Douglas Rooks

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