Why Lawmakers Should Fund Roads and Bridges First


Imagine you’re crafting a new monthly budget for your household. Should you: A) pay rent and utility bills first, then determine how much is leftover for non-essentials; or B) splurge on that shiny new kitchen gadget first, and put all the bills on your credit card?

If you choose plan B, you may be a lifelong Maine politician. 

Nearly every year, lawmakers in Augusta choose to bond for core infrastructure like roads and bridges. It occurred almost annually before 2022. Before the state received massive amounts of newly-printed cash from D.C. during the pandemic, Maine voters regularly saw eight- and nine-figure bond questions on their general election ballots. 

The state has been putting necessities on the credit card instead of funding core infrastructure from its “revenue,” also known as our taxes.

Today, Maine’s Highway Fund (HWF), which pays for building and maintaining road and bridge infrastructure, is funded largely through fuel taxes. But, as cars with better gas mileage became more popular, and some Mainers opted for hybrid and electric vehicles, a funding gap emerged. Maine’s Department of Transportation (DOT) pegged the HWF shortfall at $232 million in 2019, which, despite the COVID-cash, has only grown since

Many Augusta politicians will argue that since the cost to borrow money for roads is relatively low, there is little-to-no risk in doing so. Yet, every month it seems the Federal Reserve ponders yet another rate hike, raising the cost of borrowing. Additionally, current demographic and economic trends provide no guarantee that the state will be able to maintain spending at current levels.

Look at it this way: after just the first six years—three budget cycles—of Gov. Janet Mills’ administration, the state government will spend 20% more per Mainer than it did before she took office, adjusted for inflation. This culture of tax-and-spend-to-tax-again is simply unsustainable. Something’s gotta give.

To her credit, Gov. Mills recognizes the HWF shortfall is an issue. That’s why she’s proposing to earmark $400 million in the supplemental budget for transportation. But this is not a real, long-term solution. It’s just another one-time funding gimmick, and gets us no closer to plugging the shortfall into the future.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to close the funding gap and get DOT more of the funds it needs every year without bonding. LD 713, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews (R-South Paris) would dedicate a portion of sales tax accrued from purchases of automobiles and car parts to the Highway Fund, is currently being considered by budget committee members, and would dedicate an estimated $200 million per year to critical transportation infrastructure.

Last week, Republicans and the Mills administration reached a deal to redirect as much as $130 million from the General Fund to the HWF, though it remains unclear if the statutory language of LD 713 is being adopted, or if the plan is simply to use excess revenue for a one-time or ongoing allocation. 

Mainers will continue to purchase cars and car parts, even if paying less at the pump over time. Incorporating the language of LD 713 into the highway and supplemental budgets would secure a long-term fix to the HWF shortfall, avoid a broadly unpopular gas tax hike, and show Mainers that state government has its priorities straight.

There must be a long-term solution to transportation funding, and LD 713 is the answer. We cannot afford to keep borrowing money and saddling future Maine taxpayers with debt if we wish to beat the demographic tides of history. Lawmakers should adopt the philosophy of responsible government put forth in LD 713 and fund the roads first.