Transportation panel upset with budget

Posted June 12, 2011, at 3:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee are threatening to vote against the state General Fund budget because it does not include funding they expected to help with road and bridge repairs.

“Will I vote for the General Fund budget?” said Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells. “I am not sure yet. I am not happy with the way things worked out in reference to the highway fund.”

Gov. Paul LePage had proposed $20 million from general state revenues to help pay for Highway Fund programs. He reduced that to $10 million in his change package and the Appropriations Committee eliminated it altogether in its deliberations.

“This has to be about priorities,” Collins said. “What I hear from my constituents is they want us to fix the highways and roads, and that should be a priority.”

He was so upset he threatened to vote against the transportation budget in committee on Friday. So did Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley. Both voted for the budget, but Thomas said he is also angry with the Appropriations Committee action.

“What people tell me is to fix the roads and that is what they want us to do,“ he said. “That is what the people want and that is what we should do.”

The transportation budget and the general state budget are related. The Highway Fund receives most of its revenues from fuel taxes and the General Fund gets revenue from sales and income taxes as well as many smaller sources of income. State police are funded by both budgets and in addition to a direct appropriation of $20 million. The Transportation Committee wanted the General Fund to pick up two-thirds of cost of the State police. Neither were approved.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, is the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He said the panel has to balance all of the needs of the state, not just transportation items. He said the committee did put two items in the budget that will provide some aid for transportation projects.

One section dedicates a small portion of the sales tax on rental cars to the State Transit, Aviation and Rail Transportation Fund that will provide the match for several federal programs. The move will generate a little over $3 million a year that will attract about $27 million federal dollars.

“We also dedicated 25 percent of the revenue we expect from the re-negotiation of the wholesale liquor contract that we authorize in the budget,” said Rosen. “That will be a significant amount.”

The budget language requires a minimum upfront payment of at least $20 million. The panel expects the revenue for the 10 year life of the contract will exceed $40 million a year.

“We recognize the needs and we have done what we could in the budget, “said Rosen. “It is a compromise and a balancing of priorities.”

But with a backlog of highway and bridge projects estimated in the billions of dollars and growing every year, members of the transportation committee believe more needs to be done.

“I know the Governor’s concerns about borrowing and I agree with many of his reasons,“ said Collins. “I plan to go down and meet with him and urge he support a bond for highways.”

He said the voters have always given strong support to highway bonds because they know repairs and improvements to the highways are needed. He said bonding is an appropriate way to fund some of those projects.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, is on the Transportation Committee and is a former co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He agrees with Collins that more General Fund money is needed for roads and bridges. He argues a bond issue paid for by the General Fund would be appropriate and agrees the voters would support the borrowing.

“We need a bond issue, “he said. “ We don’t have any money in the budget to do it right now, other than what was left over, if you will, from the previous budgets. It is not sufficiently funded right now.”

But both Collins and Diamond realize they face an uphill battle to get a bond issue approved by the legislature. Governor LePage has repeatedly said the state cannot afford to borrow with the size of the state debt and that he opposes any bond packages this session.

“I am going to do my best to convince him one is needed, “Collins said.

A bond proposal takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to send it to the voters for their approval.

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