AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Taking over Tuesday as the point person for a state government budget of more than $6 billion, Ryan Low said he sees major financial challenges ahead as work gets under way on the state’s next spending package.
“Certainly one of the toughest challenges we face is that people are asking more and more of state government because of the heating crisis we’re in,” Low said in an interview after being sworn in Tuesday as finance commissioner by Gov. John Baldacci.
“We know that we’re not immune to the things that are going on in the national economy right now, so we’re looking at flat and declining revenues and increasing demands,” said Low, who succeeds Rebecca Wyke as head of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. Wyke became vice chancellor of finance and administration for the University of Maine System.
Low brings extensive experience in state finances to the job, whose central focus is composing a two-year general fund budget that currently stands at $6.3 billion. As commissioner, he represents the administration in often tough questioning before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee as it reviews the spending blueprint line-by-line.
State departments faced a deadline Tuesday to submit their proposed budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and Low says most had done that. Exceptions had to do mostly with uncertainties surrounding federal funding impacts.
As the number crunching begins, Low said challenges include flat revenues and higher costs, as well as uncertainties created by uncontrollable influences like fluctuating oil prices.
“The two biggest pieces of the state budget — human services and education — typically grow at between 4 and 10 percent each, and if all your revenue is flat and 80 percent of your budget is growing at 8, 9, 10 percent, it’s not difficult to see where your challenges are going to be,” Low said.
“On top of that, we’re working (from) the current revenue estimates that we have. When they were put together last year, oil was at $74 a barrel. That’s obviously not the case today, so the (revenue) forecasting committee will be coming back in November to re-project revenues,” Low added. “There’s a chance those revenues could go down, which will make the situation even more difficult.”
After closing a $190 million gap between revenues and expenses, the state finished fiscal 2008 with a $56 million general fund surplus. Starting in January, lawmakers will review a budget for the two-year cycle that begins next July 1.
Low, of Winthrop, steps into his new role after serving as deputy chief of staff for the governor. Baldacci said Low “has proven that he is more attuned to the issues and finances of the state of Maine than just about anyone.”
“He is someone who works well with all parties involved and stays true to the economic principle that if you don’t have money, you cannot spend it,” the governor said in a statement.
Previously Low was state budget officer, associate finance commissioner, director of financial and personnel services, and chief of staff in the House speaker’s and House majority offices, where his duties included budget issues.
A Democrat, Low built on his experience dealing with Republican counterparts while working for a year as the House Democrats’ staffer on the state reapportionment commission. “I believe that’s where I created some good will,” said Low, who received an endorsement at his legislative hearing from the House Republican leader, Rep. John Tardy of Newport.
Low is a graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington