A Discussion of Federal Issues
(from Maine Townsman, March 2000)
by Linda Lockhart, Legislative Advocate, MMA
Each year in early March, Maine’s municipalities send delegates to the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference held in Washington, DC. The primary focus of the conference is federal legislation and advocacy, which for Maine’s delegation, culminates in meetings with our Congressional delegation, Senator Olympia Snowe, Senator Susan Collins, Congressman Tom Allen and Congressman John Baldacci.
In preparation for the conference, MMA develops an annual Federal Issues Paper describing issues of importance to Maine’s municipal governments and citizens. A summary of this year’s FIP is contained in the article on "Federal Issues" beginning on page 9. The full text of the 2000 Federal Issues Paper is available through MMA’s website, www.memun.org, or you can request a copy from Tina Means, 1-800-452-8786.
This year, Maine’s municipal delegation consisted of about 30 officials, including MMA President Lee Young, mayor of Auburn and Vice President Bruce Benway, city manager of Biddeford, MMA Executive Director Chris Lockwood and Linda Lockhart of the State and Federal Relations department.
Because the Senate was in recess during the week of the conference, the Maine local officials were unable to meet with Senator Olympia Snowe and Senator Susan Collins. A small group of the municipal officials did, however, met with the senators’ staff members on March 13 to discuss the issues described in the paper. The full Maine delegation met with Representative Tom Allen and Representative John Baldacci on March 14. Lee Young moderated the discussions. What follows are a few highlights of the discussions.
Special Education Costs
According to Senator Snowe’s staff, the Republicans are promoting a bill that would fully fund IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) by 2006.
Sally Temm, Scarborough town councilor, advised our congressmen that municipalities want to take care of kids. It must not be forgotten that children are the first priority, but that funding assistance must be provided by the federal government as promised, she said. Scarborough’s special education budget doubled in the last five years and the costs of providing services to a single student are as much as $75,000 per year.
Maine local officials described special education costs that are rising much higher than other education costs. Non-special education programs are suffering. Parents are demanding a special education "diagnosis" in order to receive specialized services for their children. Some speculated that some forms of price gouging may exist in the provision of special education services.
Municipal officials wondered if we should be fighting the special education funding war on other fronts in addition to funding.
Congressman Baldacci advised the group that he is cosponsor of a bill to increase federal funding to 14%. Councilor Temm challenged the congressman to justify 14% as the magic number when the law calls for 40% funding. Baldacci’s response was that "Rome wasn’t built in a day."
Baldacci said that incremental steps are appropriate, along with increased flexibility in how the money is used. In 1978, the federal government provided 10% of all education funding, but this, just like sewer and water funding, has fallen to local revenues. Still not entirely satisfied, Temm told the congressman that if we can only expect 14% of the funding, then we should only have to comply with 14% of the regulations.
Congressman Allen said that he has urged 40% funding and was disappointed to know that Maine is at 7% when the rest of the country is at 12%. It may be that too many children are being moved into special education. A simple change in qualifying criteria could alter the pressures dramatically, according to Allen.
James Carignan, Lewiston city councilor, characterized the brownfield liability as a "defining issue" for Lewiston. The mills are at the heart of the city and the city makes no sense without them. One brownfield grant is underway and another is pending.
MMA delegates discussed the reality that many Maine municipalities are dealing with redevelopment of mill areas because we have lost our mills. Liability is important, but so is continued funding for the program. Redevelopment initiatives are major components of "smart growth" efforts.
Senator Snowe’s staff said that brownfield redevelopment is certainly a popular program and we can expect to see some legislation passed to provide relief on the liability issue. EPA Region I is working hard to cooperate, but the paperwork is almost insurmountable.
Congressman Baldacci is working on a Superfund reauthorization act and brownfield legislation that will direct EPA’s cooperation. Baldacci called it "totally unacceptable" that a city has to shoulder all liability. Congressman Allen was hopeful that legislation will be successful both for Superfund reauthorization and brownfield redevelopment improvements. According to Allen, changes to the Superfund program would release many of the smaller players, such as municipalities and school districts, from the threat of joint and several liability.
E-commerce and Internet Taxation
Local officials told the congressmen and Senate staffers that it was frightening to hear the Secretary of Commerce say that it is too difficult to deal with all the separate sales taxes. If cash registers are smart enough to sort out all the information on bar codes, then computers should be able to resolve tax issues. As municipal officials see it, the sales tax issue is being used as a way to reform the tax codes and that is putting the cart before the horse.
Senator Snowe’s staff discussed speculation about the contents of the report of the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, due in April. According to staff, the commission may offer a plan that would require states to modify sales taxes, prohibit an access tax, and extend the moratorium on new taxes. "Sweeteners" would be offered in the form of repeal of federal telecommunications taxes and reductions in property taxes for telecommunications property. No one knows for certain whether any real proposal will be delivered in April and many speculate that the result will simply be an extension of the moratorium.
Senator Collins’ staff said that Congress is fractured on the issue as well. What the commission does will have a large impact on the psychology of the Congress because all the factions are represented on the commission. Senators Snowe and Collins will wait for the commission’s report before taking positions on the issues. They urged small business owners to write to Maine’s Congressional delegation.
Congressman Baldacci wants to see more growth of the Internet, especially because his district is so rural. Baldacci believes that Internet use has the potential to put rural areas on the same economic level urban areas enjoy. At the same time, he recognizes the share that sales tax has in the revenue mix. Congressman Baldacci is encouraging the National Governors Association to continue its work of developing solutions to the sales tax problem. Baldacci urges caution, and advises that we don’t want to "kill the goose." He expects the moratorium on taxes to be extended another three to five years.
Congressman Allen believes that something needs to be done, but he is not sure what. Allen wants to maintain state and local revenue, but is concerned that there are too many taxing jurisdictions to be accommodated. Still, at the end of the day, we cannot provide an incentive for people to purchase tax free, according to Allen. Congressman Allen is hearing (presumably from Internet retailers) that it is too complicated, not just because of the tax rates, but also because of the way different items are taxed. Over time, e-commerce will encourage greater uniformity in tax application. There will be local control issues. Allen said that we all need to think about that. The direction of e-commerce will be toward simplification. Congressman Allen advocated waiting for the commission’s report.
Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo described the horrific casualties to be expected from federal regulation that forces overweight trucks through the two rotaries in his city. Bridgeo witnessed one mishap that ended with a sedan wedged underneath a tanker that had dragged it partway around the eastside rotary, a stone’s throw from Cony High School. Fortunately, the tanker was empty, but it’s just a matter of time before a similar tanker, loaded with jet fuel or another hazardous substance, is involved in a similar occurrence.
Congressman Baldacci told the MMA delegation that they were "preaching to the choir" on this issue. As for funding, the congressman said that it is important to make sure that what has been authorized is also appropriated. Baldacci met with the federal highway administrator on the truck weight issue. The next step is to work with the Maine representatives of safety groups, such as Mothers Against Tired Truckers, to educate them about the unreasonable safety hazards created by the presence of these trucks on local roads. The Maine municipal delegates agreed to work to educate the safety groups, and Bridgeo agreed to be "point" person.
Senator Snowe’s staff was less optimistic, worrying that any waiver would come at the cost of federal funding. Senator Collins’ staff agreed and said that the issue continues to be very fraught with emotion. Families who have lost members due to tired truckers with heavy trucks on highways make compelling cases.
Bruce Benway described Biddeford’s need for flexibility with the end date for that city’s CSO project. EPA has been flexible with all other deadlines, but not the end date. Senator Snowe’s staff said that the latest CSO Partnership draft offered for S. 914 is good and is supported by environmental groups. The CSO bill is next up in the environment committee and has a great chance because the head of the committee faces the same problems. Senator Snowe’s staffers believe that they are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Congressmen Allen and Baldacci are both cosponsors (among 300) on the CARA bill. Congressman Allan believes that it will be accepted by the House, but that it may have some problems in the Senate. According to Senator Snowe’s staff, CARA funding would be an entitlement program that would have to compete with social security and other programs for funding. We may also want to consider withdrawing support for federal funding for land acquisition, unless local control can be ensured.
Congressman Allen called the takings bill "fast track for developers" and promised to vote "NO" when it comes up in the House this week.
Senator Collins’ staff said that the senator is still trying to assess the impacts and has not developed a position to date.
Congressman Baldacci characterized the issue as a "challenge" that "weighs heavily" on him; however, he would not commit to voting against the takings bill.