Talk of change – in government culture, public perceptions and support for a bond – dominates at Legislative Breakfast
Change was in the air at the 2012 Transportation Legislative Breakfast March 30 at the Senator Inn in Augusta. The breakfast was sponsored by the Maine Better Transportation Association (MBTA), the Associated General Contractors of Maine (AGC Maine) and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Maine (ACEC Maine).
The event brought together legislators and the organizations’ members to discuss transportation issues. This year, the big question was whether the legislature would change its stance on bonding and send a transportation bond to voters. All four speakers – Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Washington County), House Minority Leader Emily Cain (D-Orono), Representative Teresea Hayes (D-Buckfield) and Representative Dennis Keschl (R-Belgrade) – said that the Maine Legislature was poised to change its stance on bonding and send an infrastructure bond package to voters. But the circumstances would have to be just right.
‘Projects made to last’
This year’s panel discussion was kicked off by Senator Raye who made it clear that, if a bond package was approved by the legislature, it would be after lawmakers addressed other budget issues, including the 2013 Department of Health and Human Services budget. (Editor’s Note: Both houses of the legislature did pass a $51.5 million transportation bond, at at press time were waiting to see if the governor elected to veto it and other bond measures.)
Raye, who has been a vocal proponent of a bond ever since the legislature tabled discussion of one during the last session, noted how critical capital infrastructure investments are for the state “to expand economic growth and commerce in Maine.”
Raye spoke about what he believes is “good debt and bad debt.” The good debt, he said, “is for projects made to last – roads, bridges, rail, sewer and water.” He warned against a “Christmas tree approach” that treats taxpayers’ money like a credit card. He also talked of the need to increase support for highways and bridges from the state’s General Fund.
Raye, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Maine’s second district, noted that the current Highway Fund budget includes $689 million for highway and bridge expenditures over two years and is estimated to create or support approximately 2,100 jobs. He also had words of praise for the head of the Maine Department of Transportation. He said the commissioner has worked over the past year to cope with decreased funding by finding efficiencies within his department and “wringing every mile of work out of the budget. . . David Bernhardt is doing a terrific job,” Raye said.
Representative Cain was also candid in her support for a bond package that focused on improving the state’s infrastructure.
“We need a bond package,” she said. “I’ve been a vocal, sometimes annoying proponent of a bond, like a dog on a bone,” said Cain making fun of her single-minded advocacy for more investment in infrastructure. “I can pivot to a discussion of a bond from any topic.”
Cain said that the right sort of investment – in infrastructure and education, including classrooms and labs – is an investment in the long-term economic well-being of the state.
After being briefed on current legislation under debate by the legislative leadership, Representatives Keschl and Hayes shifted discussion to issues of perception and priorities.
“It’s not just about bonding, it’s about resetting priorities,” said Keschl, who noted that state funding for transportation has declined in recent decades from 13 percent to just seven percent today.
The former town manager said he knows that roads are important to his constituents because that topic is a constant wherever he goes. “I am hearing about roads all the time. We have to do something about them.” He blamed gridlock in Washington as the major culprit. “When I was growing up, it seemed our government could agree.”
Representative Hayes talked of the need to create “enthusiastic taxpayers” who understand the need to think and invest long-term rather than settle for short-term solutions and quick fixes.
“We have to look at the future,” said Hayes. “We are so used to looking at the end of our noses.”
“We have been more reactive than proactive and spent a lot of time talking about things that don’t make an impact. If we focused on things we knew could make a difference, imagine what we could do.”