Gov. Paul LePage’s explanations for his budget proposal that eliminated revenue sharing with municipalities and drastically scaled back property tax relief programs evolved between January, when he first released his proposal, and June, when the House and Senate overrode his budget veto.
In January, the publicity materials released by LePage’s office stated the municipal revenue sharing cut was “necessary … in order to for the state to maintain essential programs to protect our most vulnerable citizens.” In his budget message, LePage wrote, “I commit to you here that we will restore revenue sharing to local governments as the economy improves.”
During his State of the State address in February, the governor said, “I take no pride in this budget. In fact, I do not like it at all.”
But as municipal leaders blasted the budget, saying it would force them to raise property taxes, LePage dug in his heels and said raising taxes would be their choice. They could instead trim expenses to compensate for a revenue loss, or they could partner up with neighboring municipalities to provide police, fire, sewers and schools.
Last month, LePage was asked at a news conference whether his proposal to trim the popular circuit breaker and homestead exemption property tax relief programs constituted a tax increase. His answer proved he had, rhetorically, come full circle.
“If we want local control, why are we asking the state government to pay for it?” he said. “If you want to be in charge of your own destiny, you shouldn’t ask the state, big brother, to pay for it.
“Let’s work together,” he continued. “Why is the Southeast so successful? They do more things at the county level. That’s all I’m suggesting.”
In about six months, LePage had become a full-fledged advocate for turning over more government services to Maine’s counties. And he became proud of a budget he previously took no pride in putting forward.
“I honestly believe that the budget that was put up in January was a good budget,” he said at the June news conference, “a budget where we need to start looking at a state that has been 50th to do business.”
LePage’s desire to concentrate more services at the county level could have merit, but in Maine, it goes against the grain. Counties have never been strong in Maine — or in the rest of New England for that matter. LePage is right that Maine takes its local control and independent spirit seriously.
That’s why, if LePage wants to see movement toward more county-level government, it’s up to him to put forward a plan to achieve it rather than say reactively his budget was intended to start that shift.
Even without a plan, more services may shift to the county level simply because of a natural evolution in shrinking towns like Atkinson and Bancroft. They’re trying to deorganize because it’s simply too expensive to keep municipal structures intact for a dwindling population, and they’re still running into resistance.
But if LePage wants to accelerate the shift, he will have to explain how such a reorganization in the way Maine provides government services will save taxpayers money and improve the quality of services.
Mostly, though, he’ll have to build up the public will to change the way government works — and that’s likely to be the most challenging part.
Gov. John Baldacci’s school district consolidation plan evolved from a proposal to merge Maine’s 290 school districts first into 26 larger units, then a more politically palatable 80. The end result was closer to 160 after the law had been watered down to appease different constituencies. Then, once the law’s penalties disappeared, some of the newly merged units started breaking apart.
LePage has said Baldacci’s school district consolidation effort didn’t go far enough.
Yet, LePage is likely to encounter the same pitfalls that held Baldacci’s plan back if he aggressively pursues a plan to reorganize how Maine delivers government.
If LePage is to convince Maine residents they need to shift more government services to the county level from the municipal structures they’ve long relied upon, it will be a difficult feat to win over the municipal officials he would need on his side to make his vision a reality. After all, the governor alienated most of them with his budget proposal, and he didn’t work to earn their support.
His supposed quest for consolidating government services at the county level appeared to evolve as a defense for an unpopular budget.