Senate backs off highway bond plan

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AUGUSTA – An effort to temporarily suspend a scheduled increase in the gasoline tax and to borrow $60 million to fund highway and bridge construction failed Monday night in the Legislature.

After approving a transportation budget that included the borrowing three weeks ago, the Senate in the end dropped the plan, agreeing to accept the House version of the bill.

While there appeared to develop a consensus among lawmakers that a greater investment in the state’s transportation system is necessary, there was no agreement on the best way to pay for it.

Last week, Republican leaders offered an alternative to the borrowing package. Their plan would have dedicated up to $60 million of a projected state surplus to highway funding. Indicators suggest the state will finish the fiscal year with between $45 million and $60 million in additional revenue.

“There is no need to borrow and dig ourselves deeper in debt when we suddenly have a surplus,” said House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, on May 18 when the plan was unveiled.

The idea failed to gain traction.

On Monday morning, Rep. Boyd Marley, D-Portland, and state Sens. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, and John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, made overtures at a possible deal. Damon suggested that part of the surplus could be packaged with a smaller bond proposal to speed highway and bridge work.

“It’s been politics from the beginning rather than good policy,” Marley said Monday morning. “The issue of borrowing, (Republicans) want to make that a political issue.”

No deal was reached.

As part of negotiations over a supplemental budget approved earlier this year, Democratic leaders and members of the Appropriations Committee agreed not to support efforts to send a bond proposal to voters this year. The agreement was the key to the Legislature passing a nearly unanimous budget.

Members of the Transportation Committee, however, balked, advocating instead for sending to voters for approval a $60 million bond. When Assistant Senate Majority Leader Kenneth Gagnon, D-Waterville, and two Republicans broke ranks with other Democratic leaders and Republicans, the bonds and gas index provisions were attached to the transportation budget.

But the maneuvering proved ineffective. Despite heavy lobbying by Marley, House chairman of the Transportation Committee, and borrowing advocates, Speaker of the House John Richardson and other members of leadership did not break from their deal with Republicans.

“My word is my bond,” Richardson said last week. “I’m living up to the deal.”

The supplemental budget included $15 million from the General Fund to be matched by $15 million from the transportation trust fund. The $30 million is about $60 million short of what a bipartisan commission identified earlier this year as needed investment in the state’s transportation infrastructure.

“(We’ve) been hearing from our constituents: ‘Yes our roads are in bad shape, yes our bridges are in bad shape, yes we need to get something done about it. What we don’t understand is why you can’t go back there and get something done,'” said Damon, the Senate chair of the Transportation Committee. “This is our attempt, again, to get it done.”

The suspension of the gasoline tax index increase scheduled for July would have saved drivers less than a penny a gallon, but would have cost the state about $7.8 million in transportation-directed revenue.

The House and Senate have not taken final action on the transportation bond, but it would take a two-thirds vote for additional amendments to be considered, an unlikely prospect given the tough opposition to borrowing.

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