Budget Timing

Posted Feb. 22, 2011, at 8 p.m.

A bill to change the timing of the state budget, to give a new governor more time to develop his own spending plan, certainly is appealing. But lawmakers must consider potential negative consequences before considering such a change.

Gov. Paul LePage devoted the beginning of his budget address to the Legislature last week to a long complaint about how hard it was to put together a budget in such a short time.

“Our budget is being made available on the 37th day of my term,” he said, without noting that countless governors before him have met a similar timetable. “Given the logistics of drafting and printing the document, all of the major decisions were made before I was in office a month and before most of my commissioners were confirmed.”

He then added that, because of a Republican sweep of the Legislature, including a large number of freshman legislators, a lot of new people will be reviewing his budget plan.

Instead of this system, he said: “We should all be spending our first year on oversight and decision making. Every agency, program and service ought to start at zero and justify their objectives and practices. And before a budget is drafted, suggestions for improvement should be considered.”

To do this, he supports a bill by Rep. Bernard Ayotte, a Republican from Caswell, that would start the fiscal biennium in the second regular session of the Legislature. LD 381 is co-sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, House Minority Leader Emily Cain and Richard Rosen, the Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“Rep. Ayotte’s proposal would give all of us the time we need to conduct oversight and work with the agencies to set priorities,” Gov. LePage told lawmakers. “I strongly support the bill and would sign it right now if we could pass it by a show of hands.”

Compelling for sure, but conducting such oversight — numerous gubernatorial candidates pledged a top-to-bottom review of state spending — before presenting a budget comes with a big downside. If a state budget were not adopted until the second year of the legislative session, a newly elected governor would have to live under his predecessor’s budget for a year and a half.

As much as Gov. LePage complains about the spending of Gov. John Baldacci and the Democrats, would he really want to keep their budget in place for another 18 months?

Further, since lawmakers face re-election every two years, not completing a budget until the spring of the second session wouldn’t give them much to campaign on going into the fall elections.

Would the second session have to be longer to complete a budget then? We certainly don’t want to pay legislators to be in Augusta more.

This timing also could increase pressure to pass a budget, raising the likelihood that a spending plan would be passed by a majority vote, which could shut the minority party out of the process.

These and other issues should be considered by the Appropriations Committee, as it begins debating the bill with a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 23.

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