DAVID FARMER

More to balancing the budget than numbers

Posted March 09, 2011, at 9:59 p.m.
Last modified March 11, 2011, at 4:20 p.m.

It’s a lot easier to balance a state budget around a kitchen table, at a press conference or in a newspaper column than it is in the Appropriations Committee.

In conversation and in the punditacracy, it’s match revenue with expenses. It’s numbers — addition and subtraction. Red or black.

But “balancing” the budget is about more than simply making the numbers at the end of a spreadsheet equal zero, particularly when you’re talking about how the state will prioritize its activities for the next two years.

Gov. Paul LePage has proposed spending $6.1 billion, about $500 million more than the last two-year budget.

In the mix are more than $200 million worth of tax cuts, including doubling the exemption from the estate tax for wealthy families and significant tax cuts for businesses, which could largely benefit out-of-state corporations. The budget also reduces the top income tax rate, but not until January 2013.

As a practical matter, the tax cuts have an impact on this two-year budget and a growing impact down the road. The tax cuts will mean bigger structural gaps in the future and less state revenue.

The budget includes a 10 percent cut in the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, which hits Maine-based manufacturing companies that are critical to the state’s rural economy, and a 20 percent cut in the Circuit Breaker Program, a tax relief program for low-income families who pay a significant portion of their income for rent or a mortgage.

The budget is also buoyed by $365 million in improving state revenues, driven largely by corporate profits.

On the other side of the ledger, Gov. LePage has launched an assault on state workers and teachers, trying to reduce their pay and change the rules of their pensions and health care.

He has also proposed draconian, arbitrary, and, in some cases, mean cuts to children, the poor, the disabled and the elderly. And he has a plan to take health insurance away from thousands of people who today have coverage.

Some of his proposals would save very little money, but fill an ideological yearning, such as a requirement that people who in the past were convicted of a drug offense provide evidence that they are drug free before receiving benefits. It doesn’t matter how long ago the incident happened. Estimated savings, $50,000 a year. Administratively, it’s a nightmare. Practically, not one person will be helped to defeat addiction; not one family will be helped to escape poverty.

Other proposals, such as the cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly Program, would shift $15 million of health care costs onto low-income seniors and disabled people — folks least able to afford it.

Gov. LePage would change the formula for distributing state revenues back to municipalities by keeping more of the dollars for the state, and he would reduce support for General Assistance, passing more of those costs along to property tax payers. (The governor has said that he intends to modify the General Assistance proposals in his budget.)

On paper, with a few gimmicks here and there tossed in to hide additional cuts or move money from one year to the next, the budget balances.

But balancing a budget is about more than just making the numbers work out. It’s about weighing investments against cuts, setting priorities, and understanding the impact of the decisions.

It’s about deciding what kind of state we want to be.

Gov. LePage’s budget proposal balances on middle-class state workers and teachers, on poor children, their families, the elderly and disabled. The numbers won’t tell you that and neither will the rhetoric about “shared sacrifice.”

Shared sacrifice is easy to stomach when it’s someone else who’s sacrificing. Listen to the folks who are asked to give up little in this budget — and who are receiving plenty — and you’ll hear that the governor’s proposals are “reasonable” or “measured.”

They are neither.

As the legendary singer and songwriter Steve Goodman said: “It ain’t hard to get along with somebody else’s troubles. And they don’t make you lose any sleep at night. As long as fate is out there burstin’ somebody else’s bubbles, everything is gonna be alright.”

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. He is a longtime journalist and a public and media affairs consultant in Portland. Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit, legal aid organization that advocates for low-income families, is one of his clients. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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