It’s quiet in Augusta. A bit too quiet. And that is saying something now that we are in tourist season.
Of course, everything is relative. We are hearing plenty of noise on culture war issues like abortion, conversion therapy, and so-called “red flag” gun bills. Central Maine Power has been in the news as well, if you haven’t noticed.
However, as June begins, the biggest bill in the State House is noticeable by its apparent absence from the public mind. It’s “The Budget,” a very concrete example of where Augusta’s priorities lie. Elected officials can say whatever they wish, but watching where they spend the public treasury can reveal where true priorities lie.
One of the more nuanced aspects of “The Budget” in Maine is that it isn’t a single, behemoth document. Instead, there are two major budgets pending before the Legislature. One is for the General Fund, which includes MaineCare, education, courts, corrections, and the bulk of state spending. The second is the Highway Fund. Much of it is required, by the Maine Constitution, to be spent on roads, bridges, their management, and enforcement of traffic laws (read: State Police).
This bifurcation of spending often leads to a bifurcation of priorities. Since Augusta cannot constitutionally spend “Highway Fund” money on things other than transportation, it is easy to assume the opposite: that “General Fund” money cannot be spent on transportation. Yet the saying about “assuming” rings true, because the latter proposition is wrong both as a matter of law and policy.
Since the General Fund and Highway Fund are considered separately, some hard, yet straightforward questions — what is the appropriate balance between government benefit programs and infrastructure spending? — never get squarely debated. Gov. Janet Mills has proposed a $400 million annual increase in the General Fund budget, an 11 percent hike over the previous budget. Should any of that increase in spending be redirected towards roads?
If you take the Maine Department of Transportation at their word, then our transportation spending is short nearly $130 million annually. Every year we are short-changing our core public infrastructure. We fill the hole with $100 million bond questions, but all that does is add debt service payments into the next budget. And there is something asinine about spending $100 million annually to pay off debt while borrowing $100 million annually to meet present needs.
With a little hard work, forethought, and willingness to consider some period of time beyond the next two years, Augusta could probably piece together a reasonable, sustainable plan to adequately pay for roads, bridges, and ports. How should electric vehicles contribute to roads, since they don’t pay gas tax? With construction costs increasing, are there opportunities to reduce project complexity — and stretch dollars further — by simplifying permitting requirements? And are there some transportation projects that, while good politics, simply aren’t worth the investment?
This is fairly dry stuff. “Good roads” is a simple catchphrase that receives near-universal support, but repainting bridges and rebuilding road shoulders will never have the cachet of political fights over guns, pot, and elections. So, while Augusta is quietly working on “The Budget,” maybe responsible heads can find some sustainable approaches to deliver some of the core responsibilities of government.
Because we can hike the General Fund by 1 percent or 11 percent and spend all sorts of money; but, if we don’t have roads, neither tourists nor townies will be able to get there from here.