May 15, 2013

Maine highway budget targets product, commish says

It would cut 56.5 vacant positions, cap state costs for employees' health insurance and freeze merit and longevity pay for employees

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – Maine's transportation commissioner presented a budget to lawmakers Tuesday that he said focuses less on process and more on product, but some expressed concern that the budget would squeeze state workers and shift costs to municipalities.

In this March 2013 file photo, Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt. Bernhardt's proposed budget would imrprove the highways, he said, as well as cut 56.5 vacant positions, cap state costs for employees' health insurance and freeze merit and longevity pay for employees.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The approximately $1.1 billion budget for the next two years is covered by the highway fund, which is made up largely of revenue from fuel taxes and motor vehicle registration and title fees, and Maine's share of federal dollars.

The highway fund budget is debated and voted on separately from the general fund budget submitted by Gov. Paul LePage.

The budget presented by Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt would eliminate 56.5 vacant positions from his department, cap state costs for employees' health insurance and freeze merit and longevity pay for employees, to save about $1.3 million over the two years.

Cutting costs for personnel, he said, frees up money for capital projects. Nearly two-thirds of his department's budget pays for road and bridge work and other maintenance, he said.

The Department of Transportation budget includes 78 items, most of which were unchallenged during the public hearing Tuesday. The part of the budget that got the most criticism was a proposal to divert a portion of excise taxes from tractor trailer trucks from municipalities to the state.

Bernhardt acknowledged that the idea is controversial but said it is fair because tractor trailers spend most of their time on state roads, not local roads.

Although, the proposal would divert only about 2 percent of the total excise taxes received by municipalities, the loss of revenue would be much greater in some communities."The more we cut at the state level, the heavier the burden is at the local level," said Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, the Senate chair of the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

Roger Raymond, town manager of Hermon in Penobscot County, said his town stands to lose more than $500,000 over the two years if the proposal stands.

"That's not 2 percent. That's 28 percent," he said. "That will have a substantial impact financially." Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald also testified against the budget because of the excise tax proposal, which he said would cost Lewiston about $91,000.

John Melrose of the Maine Better Transportation Bureau said his group generally supports the budget as presented but the state must do a better job of finding ways to fund capital improvements."To head in the right direction, you will need additional revenue," he said.

The other piece of the budget that drew scrutiny was the freeze on merit and longevity pay for transportation department employees.

Mary Anne Turowski, representing the state employees union, said, "A disturbing trend in the highway budget is the cannibalization of positions and salary savings to fund other initiatives, such as infrastructure needs and contracts."

If wages continue to be frozen, Turowski said, many employees will simply leave.

Turowski said the state should find money to pay those merit increases and keep skilled workers in the transportation department.

Also in the budget is a change in the formula for how the Maine State Police are funded. The split is now 49 percent from the highway fund and 51 percent from the general fund. Berhardt's budget would shift that to 33 percent from the highway fund and 67 percent from the general fund.

The Transportation Committee will soon hold a workshop on the budget.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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