June 19, 2018
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Republican senators explain need for budget cuts in letters to municipal officials

By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Buffeted by complaints from municipal officials and constituents about potential negative effects of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed two-year budget on property taxes and local services, Republican senators are responding in writing.

Republican state senators are sending letters to municipal officials that attempt to put LePage’s call for a two-year suspension of municipal revenue sharing in the context of a fiscal crisis caused by “an anemic economic recovery” and “years of fiscal mismanagement,” according to a sample letter from Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport.

Republican senators plan to send similar letters to municipal leaders throughout the state, according to a release issued Thursday by the Senate Republican Office.

More than 50 Maine cities, town and school systems have sent resolutions or similar correspondence to the Legislature objecting to LePage’s proposal to eliminate municipal revenue sharing for the next two years. The Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal organization that opposes the cuts, in February launched its Fair Tax Towns Campaign, rallying members to urge their municipal officials to register opposition to cuts included in LePage’s $6.3 million budget proposal.

“The municipal leaders who will be getting these letters have been inundated with messages from special interest groups about the proposal for a temporary suspension of revenue sharing for towns and cities,” Thibodeau said in the release. “Members of the Republican caucus felt that it was important to reach out to those elected officials directly to tell them about the factors that led to our current fiscal problems. It didn’t happen overnight, and there’s no easy solution to get us out of this.”

Thibodeau’s letter assigns most of the blame for the state’s current fiscal bind on Department of Health and Human Services spending that “ballooned” during the previous decade, primarily as a result of initiatives championed by Democrats in the state and federal governments. “Unchecked” Medicaid spending and expanded eligibility “was and remains unsustainable,” he writes.

Democrats kept the focus on the potential impact of suspending revenue sharing, not the reasons for LePage’s proposal.

“It’s clear that Sen. Thibodeau is choosing not to acknowledge the property tax increase of $400 million that the governor’s proposal would cause,” Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall of Richmond said.

The letter reiterates themes expressed by LePage. Among them are that spending on human services and education eats up 85 percent of the proposed budget; that tax increases or a rollback of income tax cuts that took effect this year would hammer the private sector and further stymie economic recovery; that President Barack Obama’s stimulus created an unsustainable government spending appetite; and that opponents of LePage’s proposals haven’t offered alternatives.

“Municipal leaders have presented numerous alternatives to the governor’s budget,” Goodall said. “We’re focused on working with our Republican colleagues and the governor to pass a budget, but we know it must include challenging cuts and revenues.”

Acknowledging that there is “no easy answer to solving Maine’s fiscal problems,” Thibodeau’s letter states that he has contacted the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine School Management Association to “ask for their assistance in engaging the Legislature’s Democratic leadership on taking immediate action to bring relief from unfunded mandates.”

Reached by phone in San Diego, where she’s attending a national conference, MSMA Executive Director Connie Brown said she hasn’t seen Thibodeau’s letter but that she has met with him about unfunded mandates and other matters related to school funding and the state budget.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Thibodeau and are very pleased he’s reached out to us and included us at the table” she said. However, she described discussions of unfunded mandates as a “longer term endeavor that would not close the immediate fiscal needs in the biennial budget.”

Goodall said he finds irony in Thibodeau’s focus on unfunded mandates, which Republicans have supported because they require two-thirds votes of the Legislature to pass.

“Many of the mandates are important because they protect the health and welfare of our citizens,” he said.

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