Responsible budgeting

Posted Jan. 30, 2009, at 11:29 p.m.

As Maine continues to grapple with the national economic downturn, the state Legislature is tasked with the difficult job of prioritizing spending at a point when the state budget will decrease in size for the first time since 1974. In other words, the Legislature finds itself in the position of deciding what to cut.

This is not unlike the predicament families around our state face. Many Mainers have been hurting for longer than they care to remember. For those who have had a loved one lose a job or health insurance, the effects have truly hit home. We in the Legislature hear from these families every day, and their experiences shape our decisions about the state’s fiscal priorities.

On Tuesday, the Legislature passed a supplemental budget to address the shortfall in state revenues created by the national downturn in the economy. The supplemental budget passed 120-22 in the House, and 31-3 in the Senate. The Legislature cut $166 million from state spending, cutting many taxpayer-funded services that we now provide. Cuts to health care, K-12 schools and higher education have certainly been difficult, but necessary to balance the state budget.

Despite the cuts we have had to make, we were able to address the issue we heard the most concern from constituents about: preventing cuts to critical-access hospitals. These cuts were troubling to thousands of Mainers, and we were able to come up with a plan to continue supporting these essential facilities.

Our recent efforts reflect the responsible approach that the Legislature will take on all budgetary issues this session. When faced with an issue like the loss of support to critical-access hospitals, legislators got together and completed the people’s work. This type of bipartisan cooperation is exactly what is needed in these tough times, and I am encouraged by our ability to collaborate so far.

The supplemental budget has laid the groundwork for our work on the biennial budget, the state’s spending plan for the next two years. While the supplemental budget was difficult, the biennial budget will be an even bigger challenge. Closing the $166 million gap in the current budget caused the Legislature to search for savings in new places. Closing an estimated $838 million gap in the biennial budget will necessitate more than simply looking for savings; we must make fundamental changes to the way state government works in order to both maintain services and save money.

One of the issues generating discussion around the upcoming biennial budget is the size and scope of any funds that will be received from a federal stimulus package. While passage of a package seems all but certain, the amount of funding for specific programs like Medicare reimbursements, school funding and transportation infrastructure is yet to be determined. Despite the fact that additional money from the federal government will undoubtedly be a help to Maine, we in the Legislature are moving ahead in our work with very conservative estimates of federal support. Assuming the federal government will solve our budget woes would be the wrong approach, and we will work very hard to craft a budget that creates savings rather than hope Congress will fix the problem for us.

Our charge this session is to pass the most responsible budget possible. Maine’s Constitution requires that we balance the budget, and we did so in a way that positions Maine well for the future. While we are encouraged by the bipartisan work that has already been completed, it will take months of cooperation to meet this chal-lenge. But if this past month is any indication, this is a challenge we can meet.

John Piotti, D-Unity, is the Majority Leader of the Maine House of Representatives.

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