It may be January on the calendar, but if the Legislature’s second session is about to start, then you know lawmakers have November on the mind.

The shadow of the next election always hangs over the shorter second session – with control of both houses of the Legislature up for grabs, the debates over bills can become more about what candidates can tell voters in the fall than what can get passed in the next few months.

But there is, of course, real work to be done, and the 129th Legislature has more than usual – 650 bills to handle before the statutory adjournment date of April 15. They may not all be “emergency” bills, as second session proposals are supposed to be under law. But there are important questions that need to be answered, and they should not wait until the next Legislature.

First and foremost is how to fund transportation maintenance. Maine’s roads and bridges need repair, its highway budget is too small, and the $100 million or so in bonds approved each year by Maine voters is not enough to make up the difference.

It’s no secret that more revenue is needed. Raising the gas tax, which is injected into the highway fund but hasn’t increased since 2011, is part of any short-term solution. But it’s been a political nonstarter, so much so that the funding issue was handed over to a blue ribbon commission, delaying the need for any decision in the Legislature.

One must be made – the situation with transportation funding is unsustainable. The commission’s report should guide lawmakers, but they’ll have to make the tough votes.

The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is also ready to move forward with some initiatives that should not wait, also in response to a seemingly intractable problem.

Beset by rising costs and at odds over control, counties and the state have squared off over how to fund and operate Maine’s 15 jails since at least the end of the Baldacci administration.

The committee, along with law enforcement, legal advocates and others, have been focused on cutting costs by reducing inmate populations. They’ve discussed reducing or eliminating bail for some suspects and improving re-entry services. They’ve talked about addressing in ways that don’t involve incarceration the substance use, homelessness and mental illness that drive the jail population.

It’s the right move, and the rest of the Legislature should follow their lead.

Other issues should move forward too. Funding for high-speed internet in unserved and underserved areas of the state is critical, particularly for rural Maine. Republicans doomed a broadband bond proposal last session; Democrats now say they support using surplus funds to meet some of the need.

Speaking of bonds, hundreds of millions of dollars in proposals have been put forward, and there is room in the two-year budget for some debt service. Some of that should be spent on research and development.

Lawmakers should also fund a dental benefit for adults on Medicaid, who often suffer personally and professionally through lack of access to care. It’s long overdue, and it would mean the world to thousands of Mainers.

 


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