State of Maine: Pre-election dissonance begins

In a one-day legislative session, the Legislature laid three bonds to rest but passed the biggest one. The $105-million transportation bond was the lone winner.

Governor Janet Mills pared down her overall bond request from $239 million to $163 million and broke it into four pieces, as Republicans requested. A fat lot of good it did her. After a year of treading a line offering something to both sides of the aisle, a newly testy Governor called Republicans “the party of ‘no’” and Republican legislators “sheep.”

Republicans asked, “What’s the rush?” Next winter could bring a supplemental budget with more funding requests, against which bond debt service should be weighed. Democrats responded that the borrowing environment is very favorable right now. By January, when the Legislature reconvenes, interest rates could be higher.

The results showed why the bonds had been bundled in the first place. Voting them one at a time gave Republicans the chance to kill off all but the transportation bond, the perennial favorite. We are all too aware of the shortcomings of Maine’s roads, and we’d like a smoother ride, thank you very much. As for the rest, including rural broadband, environmental and conservation measures, some are passionate about them but many shrug them off.

Once upon a time, roads were paid for from the Highway Fund, a fund filled from several sources, most notably the gas tax. Have you noticed how everything is more expensive than it used to be? Despite the increase in cost for the labor, equipment and materials needed for roadwork, the gas tax stayed the same.

The gas tax is no more popular than any other tax, never mind its central role in keeping our roads passable, so for quite a few years no one wanted to propose, let alone vote for, an increase. In 2002, the Legislature indexed the gas tax to the cost of inflation, so that we were not constantly falling further behind in highway funds. Republicans repealed indexing in 2011; now we are losing ground every year.

With the Highway Fund unable to keep up with the cost of road maintenance and repair, the state had to turn to other revenue sources. The amounts required would displace most other state spending in the General Fund; it is simply too much money to wedge in. Thus, the bonds.

For Republicans, their opposition to bonds is about running up state debt and paying staggering amounts of interest over the years, $300 million in debt service in the budget passed last spring alone. We should pay as we go and save those debt service payments, and give tax relief to hard-pressed taxpayers. Stop the borrowing, say the R’s.

This is welcome news. The federal government has run up a deficit close to $1 trillion, due to both spending and tax breaks that go mostly to the wealthy. Republicans in Congress have supported it every step of the way. Now we are about to have a Dirigo moment, with Maine Republicans leading us toward fiscal sanity.

Surely, they cannot carp about the terrible impact of debt in-state, then turn around and support Republican leadership in Washington whose policies will require more borrowing, can they? This will be a lonely battle, as pretty much everyone in Congress is taking a ho-hum attitude toward the deficit, but hey — Little Round Top! You go, Maine Republicans. Make us proud.

Hold on, Democrats. Not a great week for you, either. The Maine Democratic Party, in a fundraising email, referred to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Moscow Mitch.” McConnell has much to answer for, but what does that even mean? It is a page straight from President Donald Trump’s playbook, slapping a demeaning label on an opponent, creating a lasting link between the adversary and the adjective, be it “little,” “lyin’” or “sleepy.”

Democrats picked up this regrettable device and now we have “Moscow Mitch.” The list of sins Democrats identify in the McConnell agenda make no mention of Russia or Russians. Apparently, some alert staffer noticed the alliteration and had an “aha!” moment. Now we’re stuck with Moscow Mitch. Remember, friends and neighbors, this is going to go on for another 14 months. Can neither party not find a more adult way to run a campaign?

The special session had a footnote. Democrats passed a bill to apply ranked choice voting to the March presidential primary. Senate President Troy Jackson had agreed not to take up other legislation, so was this retaliation for the Republican bond votes? Just how mad is the Governor? Will she sign it? None of this bodes well for the upcoming regular session, when harmony can be expected to give way to pre-election dissonance.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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