Unless the state wants to sell our roads and let the owners charge tolls, state government must commit to a funding mechanism to pay to maintain Maine’s transportation network. Currently, the revenue comes through a variety of sources, including bonds, federal funds, excise taxes paid on vehicles and the motor fuel tax.
The latter revenue source, commonly known as the gas tax, pays for about 70 percent of the major capital work the Department of Transportation does on roads and bridges.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee recently voted, with Republican members carrying the issue, to end the indexing of the gas tax. The indexing was a mechanism adopted about 10 years ago that allowed the tax to rise with the consumer price index. Ending the indexing was part of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal.
Currently, the tax is adjusted each July 1 unless the Legislature votes to stop it from doing so. Previously, it took an act of the Legislature to raise the tax. The indexing mechanism was built into law during Gov. Angus King’s tenure as a way to remove the stigma of voting for a tax increase for legislators. It was an easier sell in the early 2000s when the per-gallon price of gasoline was lower than the per-liter cost of spring water.
Republicans are boasting of saving drivers an estimated $12.5 million over the next two years by stopping the gas tax from increasing. The GOP press release quotes Rep. Richard Cebra, who in turn credits the goveror: “He understands that putting the tax on auto pilot is offensive to a huge number of Maine motorists.” Committee members, Rep. Cebra says, “know that Maine citizens really resent this tax.”
In fact, Maine citizens likely resent all taxes. And they resent bouncing their vehicles over bad roads, which in turn causes them to resent paying for more repairs. And this is not to mention the safety factor — bridges collapse for lack of maintenance, and vehicle crashes are more likely when drivers have to swerve to avoid potholes.
The GOP committee members, Rep. Cebra said, “understand the state’s needs and budgetary issues surrounding our highway infrastructure, but they decided to send a strong message that we can do more within existing resources. We can set goals and objectives and do more with less, because there’s too much bloat in the system right now.”
Ending the indexing was easy. The hard work of governing comes in finding the bloat. And that bloat must at least equal $12.5 million for the next two years.
The GOP also quoted Rep. Alexander Willette, who said, “Indexing is just a way for politicians to avoid going on record to raise taxes.” That is exactly why the system worked.