Maine Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee both gave a little in reaching a deal to close a $153 million budget gap Wednesday night, though the resulting budget proposal now before the Legislature consists of many monetary dodges that put off larger decisions for biennial budget negotiations.
The 13-member budget-writing panel voted unanimously on the package, which rejects some proposals from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, such as to apply a cap to General Assistance payments to municipalities and to cut funding for some health and human services programs. And Democrats yielded to Republicans by declining to include newly opened charter schools in education funding cuts. These changes are reasonable.
But this is no budget to be completely proud of, as it is a stop-gap measure to hold the state over until next fiscal year and was largely created by cost overruns in the state’s Medicaid program and flagging state revenues. We recognize the state has few options at its fingertips that will generate enough revenue or cut costs in the short time available before June 30. Among other tactics, it is choosing to delay local school aid payments from the current fiscal year to the next and to delay Medicaid payments to hospitals from one fiscal year to the next.
We emphasize, as we have before, that passing supplemental budget after supplemental budget that pushes problems off to following years is no way to run a state. Credit ratings agencies realize this. Of course, so do many legislators who grapple directly with the difficult questions of how to keep the budget in balance. But the test — as legislators also know — shouldn’t be whether they can find a way to push problems off to the next Legislature but whether they can define a plan that will actually address Maine’s problems in the long term.
That is their next challenge in developing the biennial budget. They will do well to examine the tough issues by thinking in new ways about restructuring services in order to save money. How can the state revamp the education system to be more effective academically and less costly for taxpayers? How best can the state go about lowering health care costs by improving standards of care, expanding preventative approaches and reducing the number of unnecessary procedures? What about the role of research and development in bolstering the economy?
No one should like the supplemental budget, but the Legislature should approve it soon. Then the Appropriations Committee can begin to tackle the 2014-15 budget, proposed by LePage at $6.3 billion. We urge the committee members to think big and to keep the focus not on the next election but long-term growth. This will be the budget LePage will have to discuss during his re-election campaign, if he officially decides to run again. It will also have to resolve the gimmicks of the supplemental budget. But most importantly it should be the start of a broad economic development strategy for the state.