Faced with a growing budget shortfall, lawmakers have the difficult task of balancing the need to come up quickly with a plan to cut spending with the need to hear alternative ideas. Tipping too far away from an open, accessible process risks rejection of the outcome — as was seen with the recent repeal of a beverage tax to fund Dirigo Health. Moving too slowly, however, could mean greater reductions in services and programs.
To strike the right balance, public comments on the supplemental budget must offer different ways to reduce state spending, not just opposition to those proposed by the governor’s office. The budget changes are needed to close the gap between state revenues, which are declining because of the national economic slowdown, and state expenditures by June 30.
The governor’s plan, which the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee officially began considering Monday, would trim spending by more than $115 million and take $45 million from the state’s reserve accounts, often called the Rainy Day fund. It also would eliminate 94 jobs, most of them in the Department of Corrections.
The cuts and changes come on top of a November order from the governor to cut spending by $80 million. Those cuts targeted the Department of Health and Human Services and state support of kindergarten-through-12th-grade education, the largest recipients of state money.
Because of the need to finish the supplemental budget quickly, the Appropriations Committee has scheduled full days of hearings on the dozens of proposed changes. The committee hopes to complete work on the budget changes by Jan. 23.
This short time frame is necessary because the sooner a supplemental budget is passed, the quicker the cuts can take effect. Cutting more than $80 million in six months is less painful than cutting the same amount in three months.
Lawmakers also must move quickly on to the budget for the next two years, when revenues are expected to fall at least $850 million short of expenditure requests.
Although time is tight, alternate ideas from state departments, advocacy groups and others can improve both budgets. Ensuring that public comments bring such ideas to light rather than repeatedly lament the loss of a program or facility is the best use of limited hours. Lawmakers don’t need hours of testimony to know that their constituents will be hurt by cuts in state spending, so having one person summarize a group’s position is preferable to 10 people saying the same thing.
In November, voters resoundingly repealed a tax on soda, beer and wine that would have funded the Dirigo Health Program. Although a tax increase was an easy target for anger, the argument that the tax was approved by the Legislature in the middle of the night without public input (an exaggeration on both counts) was persuasive to many voters.
Those opposed to the budget cuts now under consideration have a brief time to be heard. To be most persuasive, they should tell lawmakers about less expensive ways to continue to provide some of these services.