On Tuesday, September 17, a new legislative Blue Ribbon Commission met for the first time to discuss how Maine pays for its transportation infrastructure.
Immediately before this initial meeting, key members of the commission spoke at a press conference about their work, saying they had no pre-conceived notions of what kinds of funding solutions they might agree on.
Hello. I am State Senator Brad Farrin representing Senate District 3 in Somerset County.
Despite all of the talk about an open-minded commitment to non-partisan discussions with no pre-arranged agendas at the outset, I was disappointed to see that the Mills administration brought just one piece of information to the press event, a large chart showing the deficiency of the gas tax in generating enough for the Highway Fund.
The following week, predictably, the op-ed murmurs have begun to frame raising taxes to pay for roads as “easy” and necessary.
The fact that raising taxes is even a part of the discussion is troubling to me as a Maine taxpayer.
Maine has ended the last four consecutive fiscal years with surpluses averaging more than $135 million annually.
Instead of borrowing and costing taxpayers an addition $15 million in interest as we did for the recent transportation bond, Maine should use the surpluses that have resulted from the last seven years of tremendous prosperity to make responsible and much needed repairs and upgrades to our roads.
If transportation is an essential part of the Maine economy and state government’s responsibility, why is it not simply funded through the regular state budget?
The two-year budget passed in June by the legislature included spending at 11% higher than the previous budget. Since the cost of living rose just 1.7% in 2018, that means that the increase in spending in this budget is six times the increase in the cost of living.
State government spent $800 million more than the previous budget with universal agreement that transportation was a crucial, high priority issue, yet that funding for roads and bridges didn’t make it into the biennial budget.
This, of course, begs the question—“What higher priority items did state government spend a billion dollars in surpluses and budget increases on?”
The answer is the product of an age-old gimmick in Augusta to avoid the Constitutional requirement that the state budget must be balanced. While the expenses and revenues of the biennial budget document must be in balance, the Constitution allows the state to borrow, through bonds, for certain significant expenses.
It has now become common practice to avoid paying for transportation infrastructure in the biennial budget and then rely on bonding after the budget is completed to pay for our essential transportation costs.
As a result, Maine’s overall debt now totals $7.7 billion dollars, basically the full amount of an entire two-year budget.
Doing this is a strategy to bypass the state constitution’s balanced budget requirement and it costs Maine taxpayers an extra $15 million every time we borrow rather than “paying as we go” through the budget.
Budgets are all about choices and priorities, and few could argue that roads and bridges are not among our highest priorities.
It is past the time when state government should simply pay for our transportation costs the way we pay for most other top priorities, by funding them in the biennial budget.
By adding sufficient funding to the baseline budget, we can properly and permanently fund transportation.
Having raised more than enough surplus revenue for each of the past several years to cover the cost of our transportation needs, this is exactly the time when we should be making the choice, honoring the constitutional principle of a balanced budget, and making a regular, permanent investment in this essential function of government.
I believe the cost of our transportation infrastructure should be borne by those who use it most. A simple solution would be to dedicate existing revenues, for example, the sale tax on new and used vehicles, to the Highway Fund. This alone would have generated over $140 million annually.
Again, I am Senator Brad Farrin of State Senate District 3 in Somerset County.
Have a great fall weekend in Maine!