Maine Democrats have a new plan to pay for road, bridge upkeep

Good morning from Augusta, where legislative Democrats are adding details to a number of initiatives from the “Opportunity Agenda” they unveiled last week.

In addition to a town hall-style meeting they hosted Thursday evening in Bangor, legislative Democrats are using other means to take their budget priorities public. In this week’s radio address, Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, is talking public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, seaports, and bike and pedestrian facilities.

With an estimated $160 million a year needed to maintain basic infrastructure in Maine, McLean and the Democrats propose to tap gas excise taxes, motor vehicle and green vehicle registrations, as well as the sales tax on motor-related items such as oil.

“The only way to succeed in building a long-lasting statewide infrastructure is by ensuring that everyone — gas companies, consumers, green care manufacturers and communities — have equal stakes in the outcome,” said McLean in the radio address. “Gas prices are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade, and yet the gas tax hasn’t been adjusted.”

How to maintain roads and bridges has been a problem that has simmered in Maine and nationally for years, particularly as cars have become more efficient and gas tax revenues have fallen. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon and Maine charges an additional 30 cents a gallon, which ranks the state roughly in the middle of the pack nationally.

There have been numerous attempts at raising the gas tax in the Legislature, including one in 2016, but none of those have gained any traction (ha!). Traditionally, Mainers approve bond funding for transportation at the ballot box but those bonds have not kept up with the maintenance backlog.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has suggested in the past that Maine devise a way to extract revenue from drivers of hybrid and electric cars but is staunchly against raising Maine’s gas tax.

Raising those fees and taxes will be a hard sell with a governor and Republicans who are stingy about raising the cost of living in Maine. However, anyone who drives a country road these days knows the need is there. Here’s their soundtrack.

Opportunity Agenda proposals are also being rolled out in other arenas, including relief for property taxpayers. That is becoming a core priority for Democrats in the face of numerous LePage initiatives that would increase pressure on property taxes, such as his pending proposal to push all costs for public school administrators to the local level. The idea behind that proposal is to reduce the number of administrators and reduce costs in the long run but there is no question local communities would pay more during the transition.

On Thursday, Democrats rolled out proposals in the budget-writing committee that would increase the homestead exemption, the property tax fairness credit and municipal revenue sharing.

All of those proposals will be thrown into the huge stew that is the biennial state budget negotiations, but don’t expect any firm decisions to be made for another month, or maybe two. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • After an Augusta roundtable, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree called Maine’s refusal of federal funds for health care ‘disastrous.’ Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, held a roundtable with Attorney General Janet Mills and health groups on Thursday, when one topic of discussion was a report from the progressive Maine Center for Economic Policy finding LePage has refused $1.9 billion in federal assistance, most of it due to refusal of Medicaid expansion, which his administration has said would send health care costs exploding. In a statement, Pingree called it “disastrous … to leave so much of that money on the table.” — Michael Shepherd
  • A rising Republican star, former Maine legislator and LePage staffer were among the governor’s appointees to the Maine Commission for Community Service. LePage and Education Commissioner Robert Hasson Jr. announced 11 new appointments to the commission on Thursday, including Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, a conservative who led a tax revolt in his city last year, former state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, and Sean Ingram, the governor’s legislative policy coordinator. — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine’s congressional delegation is asking for a commemorative stamp to honor a veterans’ group. The office of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, said he led a letter from dozens of members of Congress asking the U.S. Postal Service to issue a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Disabled Veterans of America. The rest of Maine’s delegation signed on as well. — Michael Shepherd
  • Poliquin will visit a Head Start program in The County today. He’ll tour the Aroostook County Action Program Inc.’s Houlton Center and read to a classroom of Head Start students. The tour begins at about 11 a.m. There’s no word on which book Poliquin will read to the students but the Daily Brief has a suggestion, written and illustrated by much beloved former Bangor Daily News artist Eric Zelz and his wife, Abigail. — Christopher Cousins
  • Maine teachers will renew their certifications online starting in July. The Maine Department of Education is moving credentialing for Maine teachers to the web with the intention that the transition will be complete by July 1. That’s when certificates for teachers, educational specialists and administrators expire. A news release says the new system will “completely replace” the current paper system. A system of training and webinars are planned but for more information call Angel Martinez Loredo at the Department of Education at 624-6603. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

There’s not much happening in Augusta today, with the Legislature out and only a short committee schedule.

Reading list

Burning question: What’s a good Easter whiskey?

What whiskey goes best with marshmallow peeps, jelly beans and chocolate bunnies? That’s the question my wife asked Thursday before she went shopping. I was tempted to say “whichever kind comes in a big bottle” but I settled on “whatever you decide, babe. As you know I like most of them.”

She must still be grumpy that we didn’t put a valiant enough effort into St. Patrick’s Day (this would be the soundtrack she’d choose) because she came home with a bottle of Jameson Irish “Caskmates” Whiskey, which is aged in barrels previously used to make stout beer.

We didn’t want an Easter disaster so we sampled the Jameson’s last night and concluded that yes, that will be just fine. We only hope the bottle lasts until Sunday. Here’s our soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

The Daily Brief will be off on Monday in honor of Patriot’s Day. (That’s where Maine puts the apostrophe for some reason.) We’ll be back on Tuesday.

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.