By Jill Goldthwait
One of the sins of omission of the last legislative session is coming home to haunt us. The Legislature adjourned on time, which is good, but only managed to do so by leaving a substantial stack of work undone. Hundreds of bills were carried over to the second year of the 129th Legislature and among them were the bond proposals.
Four came forward in a $239-million package presented by Governor Janet Mills and were approved by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. They include a $105-million transportation bond for roads and bridges, $65 million for wastewater treatment, renewable energy projects and the Land for Maine’s Future program, $50 million for research and development, broadband and fishing and farming infrastructure and $19 million for high school level career and technical education and child care.
Transportation bonds are usually unassailable, with both the Legislature and the public supporting them. This year there’s a hitch. Republicans were not sure they could swallow the whole $105 million for the transportation bond and liked even less the attempt to pass all four bonds in a single package.
The rationale for putting all the bonds together is obvious. Bond supporters hope opponents will hold their noses and vote for all the bonds because they like some of them. Should the package fail, as it did, much can be made of the “nay” voters in the coming election cycle. They will be castigated for opposing funds for transportation infrastructure maintenance and repair, the need for which is palpable to anyone who spends time behind the wheel in Maine.
There was speculation at the time that the Governor would call a special session this summer to take up the bonds again. It is painful for legislators to be dragged away from home in the summer, especially when it is not for an emergency but to complete work that should have been done during the regular session.
Then there is the cost factor. Special sessions are estimated to cost about $40,000 a day, and you know who is paying for that. Before reconvening the Legislature both the Governor and legislative leadership want to be confident that an agreement can be reached, and quickly.
The package voted on last June by no means represents the entire universe of bond proposals. There were 38 general fund bond proposals in play during the session; 36 of them were carried over, two were dispatched to the dead file.
No way are all of those carried over going to pass, but Republicans now have the opportunity to claim that Democrats want to over-borrow. Democrats would have put themselves in a better position to argue for their hearts’ greatest desires had they disposed of more of the bonds before adjourning in June.
Majority Democrats will now have to choose between breaking the bond package into pieces and passing some of them or keeping them together and maybe losing them all. With our teeth rattling in their sockets after last winter’s cycle of rain followed by deep freeze wreaking havoc with roads, the public will not be interested in the niceties of the politics involved. We just want the roads fixed.
There were several bills submitted proposing sources other than borrowing for roadwork, but few of these are popular. They include increased fees for licenses and registrations, increasing the tax on short-term vehicle rentals, transferring the sales tax revenue from automotive items to the Highway Fund on a monthly basis and increasing the gas tax.
Once upon a time this last item, the gas tax, was indexed to inflation so revenue would keep up with increasing costs in the Highway Fund, but that was repealed in 2011. A bill to adjust the gas tax on a seasonal basis, up in summer, down in winter, was killed.
The Legislature did pass a bill creating a Blue Ribbon Commission to Study and Recommend Funding Solutions for the State’s Transportation Systems. Looking for a way to reduce reliance on bonding will surely be part of the effort.
Opposition to increasing bonded indebtedness is not without reason. It is expensive to bond; pay as you go would save the state significant money in the long term. The problem is that the expense of caring for our transportation infrastructure is so great that it would take a massive increase in the budget to cover the need we all agree exists. Not gonna happen.
Time is running out to get bonds to a public vote in November. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, action must be taken before the end of August to get bonds on the ballot. The report from the Blue Ribbon Commission is not due until January 2020. In the meantime, we should let the public vote on whether to fix the roads.