State budget timeline change supported

Posted Feb. 23, 2011, at 9:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would bring major changes to the state’s budgeting timeline enjoyed strong support in its debut Wednesday, despite its $1 million price tag and its failure in each of the last two legislative sessions.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, would require governors to submit their two-year biennial budget proposals in the second year of each legislative session instead of the first. That means incoming governors and legislators would have a full year in office before facing the momentous task of writing and approving the state budget.

The bill, “An Act to Establish a New Method of Determining the State Budget,” which was introduced to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee Wednesday, was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group. That group includes Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono. Also lending support during Wednesday’s hearing were Sawin Millett, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, and Gov. Paul LePage through his deputy chief of staff, Kathleen Newman.

Newman said the short timeline between LePage’s election in November and his biennial budget proposal earlier this month didn’t allow enough time to pursue his goals for state government.

“Because most of the new administration was not fully in place by the time the biennial budget was due to the printer, many departments did not get a thorough review by a member of the LePage Cabinet,” said Newman. “To thoroughly dig into a department’s finances to get the kind of zero-based budget that Governor LePage wanted was impossible in the time available.”

Ayotte, who characterized his bill as “straightforward, sensible and practical,” said the new timeline it introduces also would take the pressure off freshman legislators who are faced with a several-hundred-page budget in their first weeks in office. Members of the Appropriations Committee said the proposal made sense.

“In the long run, the state would be better off,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.

Raye agreed.

“I am confident that, particularly in this era of term limits and less institutional knowledge among legislators, none of us would suggest it is wise to write the biennial budget as virtually our first order of business,” said Raye. “The Legislature considering the governor’s budget had been working in the State House for just 14 legislative days. For many members of this Legislature, our freshmen colleagues, they barely had time to find the bathrooms and cafeteria, let alone reach a strong working knowledge of their legislative duties.”

A similar version of Ayotte’s bill had been submitted in 2007 and 2009 by former Rep. Henry Joy, R-Crystal. Joy, who left office last year, was present for the bill’s introduction on Wednesday.

“Before [new legislators] get their feet placed and comfortable in their new positions, departmental budgets are presented for their consideration, review and input,” said Joy. “Many of these legislators have very little, if any, experience in budgeting and only a few have experience in budgets of departmental size.”

The bill as written would require a one-year budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1, 2013. After that, biennial budgeting would resume as of July 1, 2014.

Millett said enacting the bill would stretch his already-exhausted budget staff even thinner and require a major re-write of the state’s computer software. Though he hadn’t fully explored how much it would cost, Millett told the Appropriations Committee it would be in excess of $1 million. Regardless, he urged legislators to act quickly.

“I’m in strong support of this,” he said. “If you want to do this I advise you to do it sooner than later. I would commit to finding the money to do it.”

The bill still faces an Appropriations Committee work session, a public hearing and debate by the full Legislature, none of which has been scheduled.

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