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Republicans, DOT chief rip Democrats' late move to divert road and bridge funding

The Maine State House dome is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
The Maine State House dome is seen at dawn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

In the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, Democrats on the Legislature's appropriations committee advanced a change to Maine's two-year budget totaling roughly $100 million in new spending. However, two changes to transportation funding are drawing fierce criticism from Republicans and the Mills administration, who say it will yield a $60 million loss annually for roads and bridges, while upending the traditional budgeting process.

The committee finalized the spending package at roughly 3 a.m. Saturday, but not before Democrats introduced a pair of amendments to transportation funding that made bleary-eyed Republicans like Rep. Jack Ducharme, of Madison, see red.

"And this why people don't trust state government," Ducharme said. "Look outside. It's dark."

Ducharme was objecting to an amendment that would take an $11 million in surplus transportation funding this year, and $60 million in each subsequent year, and plow it into the General Fund for yet-to-be specified uses.

That funding is available in part because of a bipartisan deal enacted by the Legislature less than a year ago that used a portion of sales taxes on vehicle purchases and other use taxes for the highway budget and road and bridge projects.

The deal was championed at the time as a sustainable source of funds for transportation improvements, which for years have been reliant on voter-approved bonds.

"This was about certainty, providing the funding to (Maine Department of Transportation) that they need to fix our roads and bridges," said Rep. Mark Blier, of Buxton, on Saturday.

Blier argued that raiding the surplus transportation funding undercut last year's bipartisan deal.

"And what's going to happen now is we're going to take that certainty away. It's going to make the competitive bidding process more difficult for them (MDOT) because they're going to be later in the game to get bids," he added.

At that point, Blier was referring to both changes to transportation funding backed by Democrats. The second one would make the highway budget subject to the approval of the legislature's Appropriations Committee, effectively making it compete with other state initiatives for money.

Right now, and for as long as DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note can remember, it's been the Transportation Committee that has overseen the highway budget.

"It was very surprising and, you know, even disheartening," said Van Note, who was present when the amendments passed at nearly 2 a.m.

Van Note says the changes could mean cutting projects from DOT's current work plan, which is drafted on a three-year schedule.

He also worries that the annual $60 million funding cut will affect federal grants, which can provide a 3-to-1 match in state spending.

And he predicts that if the amendments become law before the end of the legislation session that Maine will have to go back to borrowing for transportation projects.

"The eclipse will only cause darkness for a few minutes. I'm afraid that what happened Saturday morning will cause darkness for the travelers of Maine for many, many years," he said.

The Maine Better Transportation Association, a trade group representing transportation contractors, had a similar assessment and blasted the substance and timing of the amendments.

"It’s unconscionable that the committee of jurisdiction (Transportation) was excluded from this decision – also left out from this seismic shift was the general public, those working in the transportation industry, municipalities, and other stakeholders,” Maria Fuentes, executive director of Maine Better Transportation Association, said in a statement. “Sweeping policy changes on how transportation infrastructure is funded should not happen in the dark of night, without public input, and while people were dealing with widespread power outages."

Some Democrats on the appropriations committee defended the changes, which were introduced by Rep. Melanie Sachs, the committee co-chair from Freeport.

"It's not about defunding one, or the other, it's about being able to look at the entire budget together," Sachs said.

Sachs says the changes to funding would not hurt DOT's work plan and that putting highway funding in the purview of the appropriations committee would allow budget-writers to conduct a comprehensive review of spending.

"We've actually talked about the fact that having a unified budget brings it into the light for all the legislature to see," Sachs added.

Republicans noted that the amendments were passed in the dark.

That was literally true for Democratic Rep. Jessica Fay, who had lost power from last week's storm and video conferenced into the meeting. Fay voted wearing a head lamp.

Republican Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, questioned if the opaque budget processes routinely used by the appropriations committee was the right change for transportation budgeting.

"And the fact that it's at this hour just underscores the absurdity of making this change," he said.

The change could short lived. While Democrats approved it Saturday morning, objections for the Mills administration could prompt the Democratic majority to reverse them.

That's because Gov. Janet Mills could veto the budget and Democrats don't have enough votes on their own to override her.

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