With a short time to significantly cut state spending, lawmakers must remain focused on cutting costs without gutting programs, especially those that serve the state’s most vulnerable population.
Long gone are the days of “cutting the fat” or eliminating wasteful spending. Numbers presented by the state’s Revenue Forecasting Committee on Friday offered the stark reality. Revenue collected by the state in 2011 is expected to be $73 million lower than what the state took in 2008. Simply put, the state has less money to spend. That means some services will have to be pared back or eliminated.
More context from the committee: The inflation rate for state government nationally is 6 percent a year. Even with flat funding, agencies and programs would be able to do less because of the unavoidable increases in costs. Pair a budget cut with rising costs and the picture is even bleaker.
The curtailment order issued by Gov. John Baldacci this week, his second of the year, offers a blueprint for the budget cutting work. The curtailment, however, goes only partway to closing what is expected to be a $150 million shortfall between now and June 30. A curtailment can’t eliminate programs or cut them so severely that the Legislature’s intent for those programs is changed. It can’t mandate lay-offs just to meet spending targets.
As a result, the governor’s cuts are a mix of relatively easy fixes such as not filling vacant positions and adjusting payment schedules and painful reductions that could increase the cost of higher education for students and their families and leave some elderly and disabled without services they need.
These are the difficult decisions lawmakers face: Is closing a fish hatchery (and growing the fish elsewhere) as devastating as stopping community integration services for 100 mentally ill Mainers? Is delaying (not eliminating) payments to local school districts a better choice than laying off hundreds of employees throughout state government?
There are no right and wrong answers to these questions. Rather, the answers will determine what type of state Maine should be. Does it continue to be, despite its limited resources, a state with a broad safety net? Should it be a state that focuses its limited resources on job creation and business development to bring in more revenue? How does it do both?
“After six years of constrained state spending, there are no easy choices,” Gov. Baldacci said in announcing his curtailments.
While that is true, legislative leaders have pledged to work together to find the best ways to reduce spending without leaving huge holes in the state’s safety net. Keeping that attitude and focusing on that standard will lead them through the difficult decisions they must begin to make from the day the 124th Legislature opens next month.