The fact that the Maine Legislature did its job normally wouldn’t be too newsworthy. But, when you consider that lawmakers agreed to a budget that significantly cut spending at a time when other states are facing shutdowns and large tax increase — and when the national political rhetoric has degenerated into threats and shouting — the accomplishments of the 124th Legislature are worthy of attention.
Most noteworthy is the fact that lawmakers agreed to a $5.5 billion budget for the next two years without a lot of rancor.
“Maine’s Legislature has demonstrated that it can rise above partisanship and make difficult decisions,” Gov. John Baldacci said after the budget was passed. “While much of the country is torn apart by heated political rhetoric, in Maine things are different. We are able to work together — regard-less of political party — to do what’s best for our people.
“In December, when I presented my plan to close an anticipated $438 million gap in the state budget, my priorities were to align spending with revenues, make government more efficient and avoid raising taxes, while protecting the most vulnerable,” the governor said. “In an overwhelmingly bi-partisan way, members of the Maine House and Senate have approved legislation that does all of that.”
Because of better than anticipated revenues and an increase in federal funding, the budget gap was shrunk to $310 million. The budget was approved 110-35 in the House and 31-2 in the Senate.
The largest cuts were to kindergarten through grade 12 education and health and human services. Lawmakers also directed about $7 million to the state’s rainy day fund, which had been depleted earlier in the national recession.
Republican lawmakers are right that difficult days lie ahead, as the state budget was balanced through a reliance on federal money — much of it from the stimulus package — that won’t be available in the future. This means state spending must be further reduced in coming years.
Additionally, cuts in school funding and municipal revenue sharing likely will translate into higher local property tax bills, although towns must cut their spending as well.
Still, passage of a budget without a lot of rancor — or tax increases — is an accomplishment.
The budget in New York now is weeks overdue. Gov. David Paterson is preparing another emergency spending plan to keep state government running through April 25. Democrats and Republicans have traded blame as talks have stalled on closing a $9 billion deficit for the year that began April 1.
Arizona voters next month will consider an 18 percent increase in the state’s sales tax to fill a $900 million budget gap.
Lawmakers in Kansas are expected soon to consider tax increases to make up for nearly $1 billion in lost revenue there.
Nationwide, 33 states have raised taxes to increase revenues. Thirteen raised personal income taxes, 17 enacted sales tax increases, 22 increased excise taxes on tobacco, alcohol or motor fuel, 17 increased business taxes, and 24 increased fees or other taxes.
Ten states — including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Florida — have raised taxes by more than 5 percent.
Against this backdrop, the work of the Maine Legislature looks pretty remarkable.