The Cutting Continues

Posted July 24, 2009, at 6 p.m.

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee this week learned that other states have shrunk the workweek to four days for some state employees, issued affinity credit cards to support local schools and mowed the grass at state properties less frequently. It will take much more than such nibbling around the edges to reduce state spending on the scale that is needed to bring it in line with state revenue.

Lawmakers worked hard and accepted unpleasant compromises to shrink the current two-year budget by $500 million over the prior biennium. But, given the continuing recession, more serious cutting is necessary.

As part of the 2010-11 budget, the Appropriations Committee was asked to find $30 million in savings for 2011. Given that revenues for May and June, the last months of the 2009 fiscal year, were nearly $50 million below projections, lawmakers should find at least $50 million in savings. Better yet, they could look for double or even triple that amount, since revenues are likely to be depressed in July, August, September and possibly beyond, as the state and national economies slowly rebound.

Both Emily Cain and Bill Diamond, the heads of the committee, which will be meeting periodically throughout the remainder of the year, acknowledged the severity of the shortfall, saying that entire programs may have to be cut.

This is the unfortunate reality. For years, lawmakers talked tough about reducing state spending, but did little beyond a trim here and a trim there, while state expenditures continued to rise. Pushed by the national recession, they got serious this year and, for the first time in 30 years, state spending dropped.

At the same time, however, nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus money cushioned the revenue downturn. The money helped avoid layoffs that would have further depressed the state economy.

But, that money is not permanent, so looking ahead to balance a budget without it is necessary and responsible.

Two areas — kindergarten through grade 12 education and human services — account for nearly three-quarters of state spending, so expect a lot of attention focused there.

The majority of school districts, for example, have consistently exceeded spending caps that were part of legislation requiring the state to fund 55 percent of K-12 education. Many districts have also been slow to move forward with consolidation, which aims to reduce administrative costs.

This prompted obvious frustration among Appropriations Committee members. “Can we work together and not look at the Legislature as a bunch of bad people who are trying to screw you over?” Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, asked school officials at Thursday’s meeting.

Working together — to identify programs that can be eliminated with the least impact on the state’s population and to find better, less costly, ways to deliver services — is the only way the state and local governments will get through these constrained financial times.

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