Gov. John Baldacci’s final State of the State address included the expected optimistic view of the future despite current financial troubles, a few new initiatives and a bit of unusual political advocacy. On a more subtle level, it was a defense of government — albeit a shrunken government — and a reminder that the governor will leave office as he entered it — working to balance the budget while trying to move the state forward.
As part of the discussion of how to close a $438 million budget shortfall over the next two years, the governor noted that many people, especially those who rely on human services, have told compelling stories about how government has helped them. But, he said, “we must change the way we help people” by reducing administration “so there are more dollars available for what’s really important.”
That means, as the governor has worked on for years, streamlining government and increasing cooperation between government agencies and levels of government. The fact that the governor must still make this case after more than seven years is troubling. It is an indication of his failure to persuade lawmakers, advocacy groups and the public of the urgency of this work. It is also an indication of how badly these groups misunderstand the scale of the state’s fiscal problems.
Suggesting a focus on “waste, fraud and abuse” after years of cutting government programs, services and employment shows a misunderstanding of where state government money goes. Suggesting that government agencies can’t be reconfigured or downsized shows a protectionist attitude that is a luxury in these financial times.
One of the oddest moments in Thursday’s speech came when the governor urged Mainers to vote no on a June referendum to repeal a tax reform law passed last year. It is unusual for a governor to use a State of the State speech to advocate for a specific item on the ballot.
More interesting, however, was the conflicted response to the governor’s message on taxes. Republicans sneered when the governor brought up the tax reform repeal; Democrats loudly cheered his exhortation to vote against the repeal. But, when the governor reiterated that he would not support a tax increase to balance the state budget, Republicans applauded, as did some Democrats.
If the tax law had gone into effect, most Mainers would have had more money in their paychecks beginning Jan. 1. Because of the repeal effort, the tax reduction is on hold.
Denying Maine families an income tax decrease — called the “Maine Miracle” by the Wall Street Journal — while cheering a “no tax increase” pledge is confusing at best, hypocritical at worst.
On nonfinancial issues, the governor pledged measures to tie teacher evaluations to student performance and to encourage innovations in schools. Both are overdue and required for Maine to be eligible for federal funding under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.
In his final year, Gov. Baldacci must narrow his focus and redouble efforts to complete his initiatives. Further consolidating government bureaucracy and improving schools won’t be completed during his term, but are worthy of his close attention.
One measure of his success or failure will come when the next governor takes office and reviews the State of the State.