Pursuant to House Rule 201, it is my honor to address the House.
Good morning and welcome back. I hope you had a nice holiday season and that you are still on track with your New Year’s resolutions.
As the 124th legislature began, a little over a year ago, America’s banks – and indeed the world’s financial institutions and economies – were on the brink of disaster. Maine people and businesses were only just then feeling the ripples of this crisis. A year later, it seems that the earth beneath our feet has solidified – if only slightly. But knowing the worst may be over is not reassuring if you are a Maine worker who can’t find a job, a family that can’t afford the healthcare they need, a student that can’t pay expensive college bills, or an entrepreneur that can’t find the capital to start or expand their business. For so many Maine people the worst still continues. And it is for these Maine people whom our decisions and work this session will be so important.
As we return to the second regular session, we can be proud of many accomplishments this legislature has already achieved for consumers and workers and Maine families. From energy conservation to pine tree zone expansions, to consumer protections to affordable housing, we made important steps in the right direction for our state.
As you all know well, in the first regular session this legislature spent a significant amount of our time grappling with the budget. Unlike many other states, we passed a two-year bi-partisan budget. Just the mere fact that we got it done was an accomplishment. And that austere budget was, in some respects, a reflection of our values but it was also a reflection of the challenging times in which we live. We return this session knowing that we must address a significant further decline in state revenues. The Governor has presented his budget draft to us and the Legislature will exercise its constitutional duty to thoroughly review his proposals, make changes, and pass a budget bill before we go home.
This recession has resulted in some startling statistics when it comes to state budgets in Maine and around the nation. I am not overstating the case when I say that the revenue decline in this recession is unprecedented – in Maine and around the country; it is the largest on record in the post-World War II period, possibly even since the Great Depression.
48 states have had or are dealing with revenue shortfalls in the current budget year. Since the start of the 2010 fiscal year, 39 states have seen mid-year revenue gaps open – totaling $34 Billion as of December. Taken together, the national cumulative shortfalls total $193 Billion – fully 28 percent of all of the combined fifty state budgets. According to the Center in Budget and Policy Priorities, these are the largest budget shortfalls in the history of our nation.
Here in Maine, unfortunately, we are mirroring the national trend. We are facing an additional $438 million shortfall over the coming two years.
And these revenues declines aren’t just about taxes and budgets. They are a reflection of the thousands of jobs lost, they are a sign of worried parents who cut back on this year’s birthday or Christmas presents, they signal a decline in visiting tourists and in corporate profits, and they are a marker of the hundreds of small businesses that have had to close.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data going back to 1976, average unemployment for the 11 months of 2009 for which we have data is at the highest rate since 1982.
And during 8 of those 11 months of 2009 more Maine people were out of work than at anytime since 1976, the earliest time for which the Maine Labor Bureau even collected this information.
Clearly the times in which we are living and governing are remarkably difficult. People are hurting and they both need our governments help more than ever, and yet we as a state are least able to afford that help. Finding the balance of what people need and what we can afford will be our central task over these next months.
Because of our budget, much of the work of this session will seem dire. But our role as leaders is to both govern responsibly and provide a vision for the state’s future and hope for recovery. While our opportunities will be limited, we must not ignore our ability to invest and prepare our state for rebuilding our economy. Whether it is rebuilding our infrastructure, insulating our homes, supporting Maine farmers, encouraging capital for Maine businesses, or educating future Maine workers, there are opportunities for progress during this short session. And, there are important roles each of you have, in your committees, to make sure the regulations, and programs, and budgets your departments are charged with are as successful, and efficient, and accountable as possible in these times.
As we have all learned, we will disagree in this chamber. But I ask that we continue to agree and disagree, and work every day with a tone of respect and kindness – for each other, for the staff, and for the public. Because in addition to the budget we will have controversial bills on special education and dairy subsidies and jail funding and many other complicated issues. And on top of the complexity of issues, we are now in an election year with campaigns and leadership races. In the face of all these competing pressures of politics and governing, I ask that each and every one of you do your best to spend the next three months focusing on what is best for our state – for our children, for our economy and struggling workers, for our communities, and for our future.
Our time this session will be brief, so we must use it wisely. Not only is this the short session, but the Senate President and I have committed to an aggressive schedule so that we may adjourn early in order to achieve budget savings. It will not be easy, and it will require House members and Senators members working together, but I am confident that with all of your help we can get our work done early. Thank you in advance for your patience, the long-hours you will put in, the difficult choices you will thoughtfully consider, and for your commitment. Your service to this state is important. I am grateful to each of you for stepping up and serving during such challenging times.
Now, without any further delay, let’s get to work.