After nearly six years in the doldrums, the national economy is finally rebounding in ways felt by the average family. Construction is up, jobs are increasing and even wages are ticking up.

Government is as bad off as ever, though, not because of any inevitable forces, but through deliberate starvation forced on it at every level — federal, state and local. You might not at first believe that Maine’s revenues are still below 2007 figures — far below, once inflation and economic growth are considered.

The 2011 tax cut has sapped the ability of the state to do the things voters keep saying they want it to do, The big picture is complicated, though, so let’s take a simpler example — transportation spending.

The revenue picture is far worse for keeping Maine’s roads and bridges from falling apart, and nobody seems to even imagine we can significantly improve them.

The problem does start at the federal level. Federal gasoline and diesel taxes haven’t been increased since 1993, and since fuel taxes are a flat amount, their value has eroded nearly 45 percent since then. Even that increase was a carbon tax to discourage fossil fuel burning, later reallocated to the highway fund. We haven’t actually boosted transportation funding since 1987, when Ronald Reagan vetoed a 5-cent increase but Congress overrode.

President Barack Obama says the right things about the need for infrastructure spending. Our roads and bridges, airports and ports, railroads and pedestrian corridors, are all in far worse shape than our economic competitors. But when he gets around to funding, Obama proposes closing corporate tax loopholes, something so unlikely in the current Congress it amounts to not being serious.

In Maine, Paul LePage entered office vowing to repeal indexing of fuel taxes, the one modest step the Legislature had taken to keep the highway fund solvent. Annual revenues were $330 million in 2007, and have declined every year, reaching $308 million. Without policy changes, funding will continue to disappear.

One drag on transportation budgets everywhere is better fuel efficiency, with cars using less gasoline per mile. There’s a thought we should substitute a driving tax for the fuel tax. The only thing we can say for sure about such a tax, given the political climate, is that the new tax will be even more unpopular than the existing tax.

LePage was asked about this while promoting his transportation plan, which also won’t work without more funding. Should a road tax replace the fuel tax? “I don’t know” was the governor’s complete response.

Things are no better at the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, where after discussing various funding options, lawmakers punted the discussion to 2016, an election year, when any tax increase is even less likely.

I can see only one way out of this dilemma — so simple it causes politicians everywhere to head for the exits. We must raise fuel taxes at both state and federal levels to a point where we can carry out the many work plans that come and go, unfunded, every few years.

It may not be as impossible as it sounds. For three decades, we’ve been cutting taxes as a stand-alone proposition, as if this wouldn’t affect what government buys on our behalf. We now understand, to a degree, that there’s no free lunch. Chronic federal deficits and constantly shrinking state programs are the results of excessive tax-cutting.

The problem with tax increases is that the converse is also true. No one will support an increase without knowing what it’s going to buy. I can find only one recent example of this happening. After the last non-indexed fuel tax increase during the Angus King administration, the Transportation Committee, at the urging of House Speaker Mike Saxl, produced a 10-year plan to finally bring Maine’s highway system up to standard. It would have used reconstruction, not just repaving, for the glorified cow paths that serve as state roads in far too many parts of rural Maine.

The plan was popular. Lousy roads are bad for business, and no one wants to drive them daily. Had the Legislature stuck with the plan, I believe it could have been completed, but the necessary revenue increases were abandoned.

Would Mainers be willing to pay another nickel or dime per gallon to get a decent road system, one we can maintain rather than patch together? I believe they might. At least we could ask them.

Is there one brave politician willing to go first? It might just be the shot heard ’round the country.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 30 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]

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