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Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport)
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For Immediate Release

Date: 06/11/12

Gillway column on Legislature's transportation highlights

Fuel tax and teen driving laws marked transportation agenda

To the Republican Journal

Tougher penalties for dangerous teenage drivers, the elimination of automatic fuel tax increases and similar reforms set the tone for the Transportation Committee in the 125th Legislature. Let's review some of the transportation highlights from the two-year term.

*Automatic indexing of fuel taxes - The state's biennial general fund budget, passed in 2011, abolished the annual increase of the fuel tax, which formerly was added to the hundreds of millions of dollars Mainers pay annually in state and federal gas taxes.

The removal of this widely despised tax saved drivers about $5.8 million over the past year. In future years, the savings mount because the tax compounds on itself. In fiscal year 2013, cumulative savings reach roughly $10.7 million and then approximately $15.7 million in fiscal 2014.

If future legislators want to raise gasoline taxes again, they should have the courage of their conviction and not hide behind an inflation formula.

*Teenage driving - The Legislature passed LD 1912 in April in the wake of a sharp spike in the number of deaths of teenage drivers. Investigations showed that the main causes involved speeding, reckless driving, operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs and texting while driving.

The new law raises the fine for texting while driving from $100 to $250 for all drivers and substantially increases penalties for young drivers with repeat offenses. During the first two years that a young driver holds a license, any violation will bring a 30-day license suspension. With a second offense, the suspension goes to six months, and a third offense results in a 12-month suspension, a reinstatement fee and completion of a driver improvement program.

The goal is to promote responsible driving by young people and get dangerous drivers off the road.

*Maine Turnpike Authority overhaul - Longstanding waste and abuse at the MTA was uncovered by the Legislature's "watchdog" agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. The investigation revealed shocking levels of financial mismanagement and wasteful operational procedures. These problems were corrected by LD 1538, now law, which demands much tighter financial controls at the Authority and sets a framework for greater cooperation and more efficient use of resources.

The statutory change brings the MTA under much tighter oversight by the Transportation Committee. Its budget will be scrutinized line by line, much the way the Committee handles the budget for the Highway Fund. Moreover, the MTA will also be subjected to quarterly audits of its operating budget, conducted by outside auditors. Last March, the MTA's longtime executive director, Paul Violette, resigned under charges for felony theft. He has since been sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

*Elimination of taxes on aircraft and parts - For years, Maine has had a bad reputation among airplane owners for its aggressive pursuit of "use" taxes assessed on out-of-state aircraft owners who fly into Maine on visits. State law even allowed Maine Revenue Services to collect a 5 percent tax from people who didn't pay sales tax on planes they bought elsewhere if the aircraft spent more than 20 days in Maine in a single year.

The real victims were aircraft maintenance companies in Maine, which lost business to all other New England states, except Vermont, which have tax exemptions on sales of aircraft and parts.

A single sentence in the 620-page biennial budget puts Maine on a level playing field with neighboring states. The change is expected to add a significant number of jobs. After Connecticut exempted aviation parts from sales taxes, it became a hub for aircraft maintenance. Connecticut now has more than 100 aircraft maintenance companies and some 7,000 aircraft mechanics.

*East-west highway - In LD 1671, the Legislature authorized the expenditure of $300,000 for an independent feasibility study of a proposal to build an east-west toll road from Calais to Coburn Gore, a distance of about 220 miles. The study will focus on environmental impact, land acquisition, economic benefits and other issues. Only $60,000 of that total comes from Maine. The other $240,000 is federal money designated for highway studies. Maine's portion will be reimbursed if the contract to build the road is approved.

The road will be built with private funds and will be privately owned and operated. Major employers have cited high transportation costs as a reason for leaving Maine. The proposed road would alleviate that concern by creating a direct trucking route to Quebec and the U.S. interior for products from northern and central Maine. The road would be open to all motorists.

*Highway Fund budget - The Transportation Committee, for the first time in a decade, voted unanimously for a Highway Fund budget. This one, totaling $637 million, includes funding for 600 miles per year of highway maintenance surface treatment - a vital aspect of the long-term care of our roads.

As a first-term legislator, I felt privileged to serve on a Committee that took on such important issues that will have a positive and lasting impact. ###

State Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport) is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives

Jay Finegan
Maine House Republicans
Tel: (207) 287-1445