Infrastructure funding will determine whether Maine is not Washington

Well, at the very least, things are consistent.

Just over a year ago, I wrote that Democrats — in Augusta and Washington — are a study in contrasts. It’s still true today.

In the past 10 days, we saw two traditional ceremonies take place. In our nation’s capital, a procession of House Democrats marched to the Senate in order to “deliver” the Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump. It turned into a bit of a spectacle, with a table tent displaying a political hashtag and party favors — souvenir pens — handed out.

For an event described in turn as “sad,” “solemn,” and “sober,” it had a celebratory sheen.

The second ceremony was Gov. Janet Mills’ first State of the State address. As others have noted, it was a fairly standard speech, as far as the tradition goes.

Gov. Janet Mills delivers her first State of the State address in Augusta on Jan. 21. (Natalie Williams | BDN)

She took a lap lauding what she counts as her accomplishments. She called out those in the gallery — and those who have passed on — to recognize individuals, organizations, and principles. And she teased a few policy proposals yet to come.

But her big argument was, essentially, Maine isn’t Washington. She is undoubtedly, technically correct, which is the best kind of correct.

Beyond the self-evident literalness of the statement, she intended it more conceptually. Regardless of our political disagreements, we are generally able to advance policy proposal, particularly where there is an opportunity for agreement.

We’ll see if that holds true.

For the past six months, Republicans have assailed Mills and the Democratic legislative majorities for going on a spending binge. They pushed a biennial budget which increased spending by over 10%, an increase of almost $800 million. For comparison, it took eight years for state spending to increase by $1 billion during the LePage Administration.

However, we’ve got a problem. The Maine Department of Transportation has put up the red flag; without a thought-out, viable funding strategy for our roads, bridges, and ports, they will be forced to merely manage the decline. To borrow an old pilot’s saying, it will take us all the way to the scene of the crash.

It isn’t always sexy, but transportation infrastructure is one of those core government functions. You can’t bring tourists into the state, move products to market, or bring people to an emergency room without planes, trains, and automobiles.

Will Maine continue to be a contrast from Washington? After all, one of President Trump’s long-awaited policy proposals surrounds our national infrastructure. It was an area ripe for bipartisan agreement. And, we’ve gotten … nothing.

It is far from clear whether Maine will reap a different fate. The gist of the dispute between Augusta’s Democrats and Republicans focuses on — what else? — taxes. The left is calling for raising taxes on fuel; the right is pushing back against it.

It is telling that, in the $800 million increase in spending, very little was earmarked for our infrastructure. We didn’t need to raise taxes to greatly increase the amount we spend on government-sponsored health care. Why should that be the primary solution for a flavor of spending which is almost universally popular?

Fixing our transportation challenges will be the real test of Mills’ rhetoric. If Maine really remains different than Washington, then a robust infrastructure agreement will be reached, enacted, signed, and delivered in time for the start of the 2021 construction season.

If not? Well, then the Democrats’ study in contrasts will be at an end. And I’ll need to come up with a new take next January.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.