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Unclear if a Republican plan to fund Maine highways can get enough bipartisan support

FILE - In this Feb. 2011 file photo, traffic approaches Maine Turnpike toll booths in Gardiner, Maine. A Maine law banning obscene license plates goes into effect Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, but getting the foul language off the roads and highways won't happen overnight.
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
FILE - In this Feb. 2011 file photo, traffic approaches Maine Turnpike toll booths in Gardiner, Maine. A Maine law banning obscene license plates goes into effect Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, but getting the foul language off the roads and highways won't happen overnight.

Republicans on the Legislature's transportation committee this week succeeded in advancing a plan to sustain Maine highway funding. But it's unclear if the proposal will garner the bipartisan support needed to avoid a shutdown of state transportation operations come July 1.

The GOP amendment to the highway spending plan takes half of the sales taxes collected on vehicle sales and parts and diverts them directly to the highway fund.

The scheme replaces the $200 million in one-time funding originally proposed and establishes an ongoing revenue stream that could preempt the need for transportation bonding that's been a mainstay of highway budgets throughout the past decade.

And according to Republican Rep. Wayne Parry, the ongoing revenue would also come from sales of electric vehicles, which provide little or no gas tax revenue — a main source of highway budget funding.

And Parry says a surplus in state revenues has provided an opportunity to cut Maine's reliance on declining gas taxes and provide a way to fund state transportation going forward.

"If you can't build the general fund and the highway fund with these kind of revenues, when are you ever going to be able do it?" he said.

Such arguments persuaded some Democrats on the committee to endorse the GOP plan, but others warned that it will disrupt ongoing talks around a change to the state budget and possibly enactment of the highway spending plan, which is approved separately.

While Democrats who control the Legislature enacted the state's two-year budget in late March, they left the highway budget unfinished. That means it will need to pass in the coming weeks with a supermajority vote in order to go into effect come July 1.

The Republican-led change could disrupt those negotiations, leading Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note to warn about the consequences of a shutdown if lawmakers don't reach an agreement in the next two weeks.

"Without a budget, we don't have positions [staff]. And if we don't have positions you can't do all kinds of things. Those include run a ferry service on a July 4 weekend, which is about as peak as you can get," he said.

Van Note went on to say that a shutdown of DOT operations would also affect ongoing construction projects and force the state to furlough operators of state-run drawbridges.

Still, Van Note says that Gov. Janet Mills had shown some interest in the GOP funding scheme, but wanted to see the final details.

The proposal will also be reviewed by legislative budget writers and leadership, which could make changes or scuttle it altogether.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.