Good news could turn sour in next budget fight

By David Farmer,
Posted May 02, 2012, at 4:53 p.m.

State revenues are up.

It should be good news.

It suggests — even if not definitively — that the economy is beginning to move in the right direction.

And the new inflow of cash should solve some of the lingering budget problems created by politically motivated austerity and the lingering effects of a weak recovery from a global recession.

But it’s not at all clear that Gov. Paul LePage and his acolytes in the Legislature will accept the good news or whether they will demand more pain from families who are already suffering.

Instead of solving problems, the improved revenue forecasts could very well be turned into a new battlefield. And so far, Republican legislative leaders are content to cede their turf to the governor.

When the Legislature left for a short break, still left undone was filling a gap in the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services and two holes created when the governor line-item vetoed compromise plans to reduce costs in general assistance and MaineCare.

The Legislature returns on May 15, and the expectation is that the governor will take the opportunity between now and then to make suggestions about both the $82.5 million DHHS gap and on how to use the roughly $48.9 million in increased revenue.

Already, he has created a new “crisis” with his veto of a bill to fund 911 service in the state, and he has shown himself to be crafty when it comes to manipulating the political and legislative process.

Maine’s budget has been a moving target since Gov. LePage first began his assault on state government and particularly on programs that help the poor during tough economic times.

While pushing through tax cuts that he didn’t pay for, he has continually demanded cuts in programs that help working families and children.

In fact, revenues would have likely improved even more but Maine Revenue Services was forced to account for recently enacted tax cuts on corporations, shifting their impact from the current fiscal year into 2012. Without the corporate handout, MRS estimates another $16 million in revenue in 2013 alone.

Of the improving revenues, about $42.1 million is expected to come in the current budget year. The number is miraculously close to the $41.8 million in General Fund cuts that were included a supplemental budget passed in April.

If the Legislature and the governor had taken no action, it’s now clear that the budget for the current year would have been very close to balanced.

Hindsight is 20-20, of course.

But it’s clear that much of the state’s budget crisis has been caused by dodgy changes in the tax code, mismanagement by the LePage administration and an ideological determination to punish poor people for the greatest of sins — being poor.

During more reasonable times, lawmakers could have used the unexpected resources to find a middle-of-the-road budget solution for 2013.

It’s not at all clear that will happen this time.

Democrats have been double-crossed by Republicans in the last two budgets, as good-faith negotiations have been tossed aside for political expediency.

And it’s not at all clear that the Republicans in the House and Senate can muster even a simple majority — without the help of Democrats — to pass a budget.

Through his degrading comments and bullish behavior, the governor has succeeded in alienating some of the more moderate members of his own party.

He has attacked some of the Republican members of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee and put Republican moderates — at least the few who remain — in tough spot after tough spot. He’s going to need every one of those votes at some point, and who knows if they’ll be there for him.

He has even threatened to hold much needed investment in the state’s roads and bridges hostage unless lawmakers agree to make drastic cuts in health and human services.

Taken together, there’s a fuse already burning on the powder keg that’s awaiting the Legislature when it returns on May 15.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/05/02/opinion/contributors/good-news-could-turn-sour-in-next-budget-fight/ printed on July 22, 2014