Battle for highway funding under way

Posted Jan. 17, 2011, at 6:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The backlog of needed road repairs and road rebuilding in Maine continues to grow, and members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee want more help from the state’s General Fund, and that is not setting well with the Appropriations Committee.

“I think it may have been mission impossible in the previous administration,” said Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, House co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. “But I think the priorities of the state of Maine, of state government, will be different than they have been in the last 16 years.”

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He said the backlog would continue to grow without additional resources as the cost of fixing the roads continues to increase and the revenues decline with more fuel-efficient vehicles. He said the state could not rely on the gas tax to keep roads repaired.

“I have a bill in that would shift the sales tax on cars and parts to the highway fund,” he said. “No, that won’t solve the problem, but it is a start.”

That move would bring in an additional $40 million for the highway fund. Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the Democratic senator on the panel and a former co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that while he agrees highways need a higher spending priority, he doubted Cebra’s proposal will gain much support.

“Going to the General Fund — when you cut it by $800 million last year and, I suspect, another $800 million this year — is an unrealistic expectation,” he said. “We can say 10 percent of this or 20 percent of that; it still means taking money from the General Fund, and that is going to be very difficult.”

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, agreed with Cebra that the General Fund needs to make a larger contribution, but he agrees that simply shifting revenues will be a hard battle. He said the DOT budget needs to be scrutinized first for any efficiency that can be “wrung out” of the budget.

“We need to look at where we are spending money and if that is a priority,” he said. “We need to scrutinize every part of the budget.”

Collins said he believes there are programs being paid for by the highway fund that should be shifted to the General Fund. He said the State Ferry Service should be part of the General Fund. He also said more of the Maine State Police budget — about half of which comes from the highway fund — should come from the General Fund.

But Diamond doubted that approach would get much support for that same reason: the funding problems facing the General Fund.

“I do think it very important that we review the transportation budget line by line and find every dollar we can for roads,” he said.

Diamond said if the committee can convince other lawmakers that it has done its best in shaping a DOT budget that maximizes road and bridge repairs and reconstruction, it will have a better chance at convincing them to shift money from other areas.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said finding any funds to shift to the highway fund will be very difficult. He said there would be “hundreds of millions” of dollars in cuts that will be needed to keep the budget within expected revenues.

“There has been a trend to provide some support for the highway fund from the General Fund, and I think you will see that continue,” he said.

That assistance has come in the form of bonds for road and bridge repairs, with the General Fund paying for the bonds. The most recent example was a $24.8 million bond voters approved last June for road and bridge repairs.

“Historically, the Appropriations Committee has tried to help in a variety of ways,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the panel. She also previously has served as co-chair of the panel. “We have used bonding in the past to help. But we have very significant obligations in the General Fund this year that we will have to meet.”

She said the committee would have to look at the “big picture” when it comes to spending priorities, and highways are only one demand on scarce resources.

There is broad agreement that raising the gas tax is a “nonstarter” and that other fee increases also will face strong opposition.

“There is a strong feeling that we should stay within existing revenues,” Cebra said.

Gov. Paul LePage will submit his budget proposals next month for both the General Fund and the highway fund.

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