(from Maine Townsman, March 2001)
by Kirsten Hebert, Legislative Advocate, State & Federal Relations, MMA
Municipal officials from Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Cape Elizabeth, Freeport, Lewiston, Portland, Scarborough, Vassalboro and Westbrook convened in Washington D.C. early this month for the annual National League of Cities Congressional-City Conference. After attending the NLC workshops March 9-12, municipal officials were anxious to meet with Maine's Congressional delegation on March 13.
Individual meetings were scheduled with each member of the delegation. In each of the meetings, municipal officials discussed the various issues identified in the MMA Federal Issues Paper (see summary of FIP beginning on page 6) which had been sent to the Congressional delegation in advance of the meeting. The following is a summary of the highlights of the meetings.
Though Sen. Olympia Snowe was unable to meet with the municipal officials because of a last minute scheduling conflict, her Legislative Director, Jane Calderwood did meet with the group.
Bangor City Manager Ed Barrett, Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo and Biddeford City Manager and MMA President Bruce Benway explained the financial hardships resulting from the mandated technological sewer upgrades. Ginny Worrest, a Snowe staffer, explained that the EPA now understands the federal funds associated with the Wet Weather Combined Sewer/Sanitary Sewer bill must remain separate from the funding for the drinking water. The staff stated that they hoped more municipal officials from other states visited their congressional delegations and presented similar concerns about the cost of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). The staff thinks that this is the way to convince other members of Congress that this is a serious issue worthy of attention and financial support.
Scarborough Councilor Sally Temm summarized municipal officials' concern with the disproportionate local funding of special education. Temm asked Congressman John Baldacci to support full funding of the federal commitment of 40% sharing of special education costs. She explained that rather than provide a federal tax cut, the funding of special education to the statutory rate of 40% would provide Mainers with a much-needed 5% property tax cut. Congressman Baldacci agreed that this was a great concern to all members of the delegation and that he expected bipartisan efforts to meet the federal government's obligation.
When asked about the rising costs of CSO compliance, Congressman Baldacci stated that the costs of the upgrades shifted the tax burden, resulting in a surplus at the federal level and higher taxes and fees locally. Baldacci agreed that Congress ought to revisit this part of the federal budget.
Recently-appointed Lewiston City Administrator Bob Vitas explained that his city has seen a 31.7% increase in the cost of health insurance premiums from last year. Currently, the cost of health insurance accounts for 7.5% of the city's General Operating Budget. Vitas noted that this is in addition to a 26% increase in sewer rates and a 10% increase in water rates. The city has been put in the difficult position of allowing its other infrastructure (roads, buildings, etc.) to deteriorate in order to comply with the CSO mandates and provide health benefits to municipal employees.
Congressman Baldacci stated that he would attempt to increase the federal government's reimbursement for Medicare health care costs. One means of doing this is through detecting inaccurate coding. He would also support legislation that would provide Maine with the flexibility to experiment with innovative ideas for affordable health care. Baldacci would like to see every Mainer with some form of basic health care.
Bill Bridego spoke on the issue of truck weight limits. Bridego said that there are two underlying issues, public safety and cost. It is the public safety issue that has prompted municipal officials to again address the issue. Congressman Baldacci explained that he was working on a Pilot Program that would include Maine's Safety Groups, Parents Against Tired Truckers, AAA, and Maine Motor Transport, as well as other delegation members. This program would attempt to produce information that could help the House and Senate move forward on the issue of truck limit waivers. Congressman Baldacci encouraged the municipal officials and MMA to assist in publicizing the issue.
Ed Barrett also spoke on an emerging issue, not discussed in the Federal Issues Paper. Barrett explained that the Reauthorization of the 1996 Telecommunications Act would be resurfacing in the near future. NLC fears that many of the large telecommunications industries will lobby Congress to preempt local governmental right-of-way authority. Many states charge franchise fees for the use of the right-of-way. To avoid these fees, industries will encourage Congress to eliminate local control. Congressman Baldacci said that he appreciated the notice of the issue and would keep an eye out for legislation that would preempt local control.
Lewiston City Councilor James Carignan explained that his city was faced with an aging existing housing stock and very little new affordable housing units. In a speech prepared for NLC members, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez stated that an additional 34,000 Section 8 vouchers would become available this year. The Section 8 vouchers have been used to assist low-income individuals with homeownership. Carignan noted that without housing stock, the Section 8 vouchers would be irrelevant. Congressman Baldacci stated that the housing issue in Maine was "bursting at the seams". He had recently learned that the City of Portland had experienced a 23% increase in homelessness. Baldacci agrees that this is an area that needs attention.
Congressman Tom Allen provided the municipal officials with his written testimony on special education funding before the House Committee on the Budget. In this March 8th testimony, Congressman Allen urged the Committee to fund the federal 40% obligation without any delays or phase-ins. He recognizes that the federal government has never spent more than 14.9% in special education funding and urges Congress to fulfill its obligation.
When discussing the rising costs of health care in Maine, Congressman Allen stated that six years ago, the cost of prescription drugs increased 6%. Today the annual increase is close to 20%. This appears to be the only unit of the health care system that pharmaceutical industries have unlimited market power. Congressman Allen stated that other countries have done something about the cost of prescription drugs. Some countries prohibit advertising of prescription drugs in an effort to ameliorate consumer demand for them.
Sally Temm reintroduced Maine's concern with lost sales tax revenue resulting from E-commerce. Temm explained that she did not believe the purported inability to create a uniform tax collection software program was a sufficient reason to dismiss the issue. She noted that the cost of developing the software should be borne by those who benefit from Internet sales. This is simply a cost of doing business, she said. Congressman Allen reminded the group that he did vote against an extension to the five-year moratorium on Internet taxation.
Congressman Allen was supportive of Lewiston's need for affordable housing. He suggested that in the 1960s the state was able to provide developers with tax incentives to build affordable housing. At this point in time, incentives have once again become necessary. He is seeking ideas from local elected officials that would encourage the rehabilitation of existing housing stock as well as development of new affordable units.
Senator Collins was able to meet briefly with the group between Senate votes. She expressed her sincere interest in full funding of the federal government's special education obligation. Noting that she would like to see the full 40% funded this year, she said that looking at the situation realistically it will take several years to achieve the full federal commitment. She stated that she has sponsored a bill that would appropriate one billion dollars for the early detection and intervention of reading disabilities. According to Senator Collins, many of the children enrolled in the special education programs are there due to reading disabilities. Once these children enter the program, there is a less than 5% chance they will become fluent readers. This intervention must come at the earliest stage, first grade, she said.
Senator Collins agreed to continue to push for more CSO funding. She noted that she, and the other members of the Maine delegation, presented President Bush with a letter encouraging the funding necessary to improve the wastewater infrastructure.
When confronted with municipal concerns on the rising costs of health care, Senator Collins noted that she has spoken with representatives from the Maine Hospital Association in an attempt to analyze the rising costs and address the level of Medicare reimbursement. Senator Collins stated that there was legislation passed last year that provided $65 million for Maine hospitals.