AUGUSTA, Maine — The immediate issue was funding $36,000 from the Highway Fund for part of the cost of a forensic chemist in the state police crime lab, but it triggered a far broader debate in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee over use of the fund for purposes outside of roads and bridges.
“I absolutely object to taking any portion of this out of the highway fund,” said Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley. “If this is needed, it should come out of the General Fund.”
Public Safety Commissioner John Morris explained funding for most state police officers and support personnel are funded through a cost sharing agreement set four years ago after a cost allocation study was done. The Highway Fund pays 49 percent of the cost and the state General Fund pays 51 percent — the split used to be 60 percent Highway Fund and 40 percent General Fund.
“The real issue is to do DNA, we need to have two chemists that do the test because that is what the courts want,” Morris said. “We need this position to do this work, we can’t do it with just two, we need the three.”
He explained the money for the position had previously come from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which comes from the annual payments the state gets from the big tobacco companies for 1998 settlement of the lawsuit against them for the health problems caused by smoking. Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, was blunt in his assessment of what will happen without the position.
“To the state police, without this position, a third of the work in the lab is not going out the door and that means a third of the cases that law enforcement in Maine does will not be solved,” he said.
Thomas said he understands the importance of the position, but that the funding should not come from the Highway Fund.
“I agree that this is an important position and we should have it,” he said. “But there are a hundred places where the money for this should come from before it comes from the Highway Fund.”
Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, co-chairman of the panel, shared Thomas’ concern. He said the Highway Fund is already subsidizing the General Fund by about $7 million a year. He said an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability study found that at most, the Highway Fund should be paying for 33 percent of the state police budget.
“It is this committee that is now again placed in a position where we have to decide,” he said. “I would even say our back is to the wall where it’s where we are not going to be doing the function of the crime lab if the Highway Fund doesn’t pick up the tab for it when in fact I am not sure the Highway Fund should be picking up the tab for this.”
Cebra said the Highway Fund is already subsidizing a number of state police activities that are not related to enforcing traffic laws. Thomas agreed and reminded committee members that fuel taxes are dedicated by the state constitution for highway-related uses.
“It was important enough to people so we put it in our constitution,” he said. “You don’t pay for nonhighway-related things with the highway fund.”
Rep. Ed Mazurek, D-Rockland, the lead Democrat on the committee, said he shares the concern of using Highway Fund dollars for something that clearly is not highway related. But, he said the position is so important it should be funded.
“To put the lab in a position where two people have to do the work of three is unfair to the people of Maine and to law enforcement that depends on the lab,” he said. “I can’t support not funding it.”
Mazurek suggested they fund the position just for the rest of this two-year budget and tell the state police they will have to seek General Fund dollars or other funding sources in future years.
Morris said he did not know how lawmakers could accomplish that goal, given that a new Legislature elected in November will decide the next two-year budget.
The committee voted to fund the position, but several members said they would be looking to find a funding item in the budget on which to “take a stand.” The panel is scheduled to resume work on the Transportation budget Monday afternoon.