When Angus King was Maine’s governor, a favorite story of his concerned the impossibility of pleasing all the people all the time.

King was touring on his Harley Davidson when he went into a convenience store, where the proprietor gave him an earful about allegedly high taxes and punitive business regulations, something he’d often heard before.

On his way out the door, she called out, “By the way, when are you going to fix the road out there?”

The line got laughs, but instead of shrugging his shoulders, I wish King had gone back in to ask if, in the interest of fixing her road, the businesswoman might agree to pay a bit more in taxes.

Now we find ourselves, a generation later, at a point where Maine’s Highway Fund is kept solvent only through nearly annual borrowing through General Fund bond issues, rather than the revenues dedicated to fixing and building roads, highway and bridges.

The facts are well known, but generally ignored. None of the major Highway Fund sources — license fees, vehicle registrations and fuel taxes — are adjusted for inflation. Even at 2% or 3% a year, the value of the fund shrinks rapidly, and, with more fuel efficient vehicles, even the dollar amount raised has declined markedly.

The surprise isn’t that there’s a funding crisis, but that we’ve been able to avoid dealing with it for so long. At the end of the King administration, Maine did finally index gasoline and diesel taxes to inflation, which stanched the bleeding, but since rates had already eroded substantially, it only staved off a reckoning.

Then in 2011, in one of his first fiscal acts as governor, Paul LePage insisted on abolishing indexing and refused, for eight years, to consider any adjustments. The only bond issues he supported were, not surprisingly, bailouts for the Highway Fund — still not enough to keep the system from deteriorating.

With a new administration comes new ideas. The Legislature has authorized a Blue Ribbon Commission on funding that aims to break the deadlock.

The larger issue is that, since Ronald Reagan’s time, tax cuts have acquired a magical aura, while tax increases are, well, unmentionable. Republicans are usually dead-set, as LePage was, even against adjusting taxes for inflation, nor do many Democrats step up to the plate.

Yet the voters, and drivers, know you get what you pay for. Ultimately, we can’t maintain a viable road system without raising more money.

The new commission’s membership is notable. Of the seven legislators, four are Republicans, indicating a real commitment toward gaining bipartisan support.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, who co-chairs both the commission and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, is an experienced hand, entering his sixth and final year as committee chairman, thanks to term limits. He’s presented bills before to comprehensively raise funding to more sustainable levels, looking at all fees and taxes, some of which haven’t budged for decades.

Did you know, for instance, that it costs only $5.80 a year for a Maine driver’s license? In other New England states, it ranges from $10 to $15. Our registration fees are similarly low, and though the 30 cent per gallon gas tax is in the middle of the pack, Maine has a lot more highway miles per person than other Northeastern states.

There are other possible options, such as a per-mile fee instead of a gas tax (but no other state has one), transferring sales taxes from vehicle sales to the highway fund (which would just create a hole in the general fund) and imposing a higher registration fee on electric cars since they pay no gas taxes (unpopular, but equitable.)

The commission is about to head out on the road for public hearings, and will probably include the old reliables in devising a plan for the Legislature to consider next year.

It’s not rocket science; 19 other states have raised fuel taxes since Maine last did, including even neighboring New Hampshire — about as tight with a state dollar as it’s possible to be. The federal gas tax, meanwhile, hasn’t been increased since 1993, but if more states act, the likelier it is Washington will finally do so.

And it sounds as if there might just be bipartisan support. Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, while endorsing no specific plan, did say, “The time is long past for us to identify and actually commit to long-term and sustainable funding solutions.”

That enviable condition hasn’t existed since Gov. Joe Brennan convinced lawmakers to back a major increase in 1983. We won’t get there all at once, but it’s at least possible that in 2020 we’ll finally start moving in the right direction.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 yearshas published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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