Senate ties road bonds to cut in gas tax

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AUGUSTA – Trying to capitalize on anger over high gasoline prices, a move in the Senate tied a reduction in the state gasoline tax to $60 million in new transportation borrowing.

Assistant Majority Leader Kenneth Gagnon, D-Waterville, crafted the language that would cut the gasoline tax by an estimated $7.8 million beginning later this year and send to voters the option to approve bonds for roads and bridges.

The deal, which was opposed by most Republicans and Democratic Party leaders except Gagnon, passed with the help of two Republicans, Sen. Mary Andrews, York, and Sen. Christine Savage, Union, and the majority of Democrats.

The bonds had been successfully stripped from the House version of the transportation budget. Late last night, the House was still in session and could yet take up the Senate version of the bill.

As part of the negotiations over the supplemental budget, Democratic and Republican leaders had agreed that no bond questions would be sent to voters this year. As part of the deal, $15 million from the General Fund and another $15 million from the Highway Fund was designated for road repairs.

Friday night’s votes in the Senate disregarded the bargain, although it can’t undo the budget, which has already been signed into law.

“In good faith, we agreed,” said Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton. “You voted for the supplemental budget and you accepted the deal.”

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, could not disguise her disdain.

“The horseplay that went on tonight moves nothing forward,” Plowman said. “I congratulate you on your gamesmanship. You look good but you got nothing. You did nothing to help drivers in the state of Maine.”

In addition to restoring the highway bonds to the transportation budget and calling off a scheduled automatic increase in the state gasoline tax, the emergency preamble of the bill was removed, meaning that it could pass with a simple majority vote instead of the two-thirds necessary for immediate enactment.

The change means the reduction in the gasoline tax won’t happen until the fall, after the peak summer driving season.

Defenders of the maneuver argued that the types of bonds being issued were not accounted for in the agreement between the two parties because they rely on anticipated revenue from the federal government – instead of General Fund revenue – for repayment.

They also argued that the dire need for increased spending on transportation infrastructure made the bonds necessary.

“Let’s take care of the roads as best as we can,” Gagnon said. “Let’s draw down federal money as quick as we can.”

And, he said, let’s save drivers as much as money as we can.

The bill would save drivers less than a penny per gallon once the bill takes affect.

Sen. Peter Mills attacked the plan, calling it a gift to big oil. The price for gasoline, he said, is set by scarcity, not by production costs. “If we lower the gas tax by a penny, ExxonMobile will raise the price by a penny. You might as well write a check to the oil companies you disparage so.”

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