As Maine state government wrestles with continued fallout from the economic crisis gripping our nation, one of the most critical problems facing us is the deteriorating condition of our roads.
For too long, Augusta has diverted state dollars away from basic infrastructure to fund new and expanding social programs. We are now living with the result with many of our roads in serious need of maintenance paving and repair. Further delaying maintenance will cause more roads to deteriorate until they need to be completely rebuilt at a much greater cost.
While some people are floating the idea of a tax increase to fund road maintenance, Maine Republicans understand that fixing our roads in these difficult times requires a more creative and thoughtful approach rather than a simple knee-jerk tax increase.
This past session, GOP legislators were united in seeking to fund the maintenance of our roads without imposing higher gas taxes. We believe the Legislature’s insistence on setting money aside only for reconstruction projects while failing to provide for regular maintenance is penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Unfortunately, majority Democrats blocked our efforts to ensure a balanced approach last session, so the Legislature adjourned with these major transportation funding issues unresolved.
Since then, Republicans have been hard at work on responsible and common sense ideas to fund much needed maintenance of our roads without a tax increase. In preparation for the next legislative session, GOP legislators introduced a number of bills with that goal in mind. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership blocked further consideration of all but two of them.
The two bills that will be considered by the full Legislature include a measure by Senate assistant Republican leader Jon Courtney to require any highway revenues above budgeted amounts to be dedicated solely to road maintenance and paving. The second bill is sponsored by Rep. Bill Browne, the House Republican lead on the Transportation Committee. It would dedicate a percentage of highway fund revenues to light capital maintenance and paving, just as we currently do with major reconstruction projects.
Together, these two bills provide the only clear path for the Legislature to address the needs of our roads without treading the same old worn-out path of raising taxes. We could have had even more options if Democratic leaders had not blocked other proposals submitted by GOP legislators.
For example, Sen. Walter Gooley of Farmington, who serves on the Transportation Committee, proposed changing the law to remove from the highway budget expenditures not directly highway-related, such as part of the cost of the sex offender registry.
Rep. Doug Thomas of Ripley, another Transportation Committee member, submitted a comprehensive bill that would have saved taxpayer dollars, adopted portions of a report by Maine’s government watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to dedicate more state funds to roads, restructured funding formulas to more equitably and fairly fund road projects across the state, and leveraged millions in federal funds.
Rep. Ken Fletcher of Winthrop proposed to set aside 15 percent of fuel tax revenue to fund maintenance paving of our highways. Sen. Doug Smith of Dover-Foxcroft proposed a Rural Highway Authority to ensure that all areas of Maine receive a fair share of funding for road repair and maintenance.
In each of these cases, Republican legislators put forth thoughtful, creative and common sense solutions to our road and highway needs.
When the Legislature reconvenes in January, we will face a general fund budget hole currently expected to be as high as $400 million — and expected to grow even larger due to the continued decline in state revenues. Those revenues are down for one simple reason. Maine people are hurting from this economic downturn. Many of our people have lost their jobs, and others are working for less income.
But maintenance of our roads cannot wait until times are better. With Democratic leaders rejecting other Republican ideas, the Courtney and Browne bills are the only measures before the Legislature that will fix our roads without raising taxes. We hope both will receive strong bipartisan support. Otherwise, Democrats will be setting up a scenario that will either increase the gas tax or let our roads continue to decay. Struggling Maine families cannot afford either of those options.
Kevin L. Raye of Perry represents Senate District 29 and serves as the Republican leader of the Maine Senate.