The lawmakers charged with keeping Maine’s budget in balance are faced with a task that seems to grow more complicated by the day — both by their own doing and the doing of Gov. Paul LePage.
On Friday, Democrats on the Legislature’s budget writing Appropriations Committee voted to restore $21 million to the state’s rainy day fund, as LePage had requested. But they also added more spending, unnecessarily creating another twist in an already complicated budget process.
Complicating factor No. 1: LePage has effectively decided to shirk his duty and leave lawmakers on their own to fill a gap that’s at least $80 million wide. Last fall, the Republican governor indicated he wouldn’t propose a supplemental budget to keep the state budget in balance. The reason? He didn’t agree with the budget lawmakers passed last spring in order to avoid a government shutdown. If it’s their budget, the thinking goes, it’s legislators’ job to keep it in balance — even though the budget contains many elements LePage himself proposed.
Complicating factor No. 2: Although he’s refused to participate in the budget process, that hasn’t stopped LePage from requesting funding for some of his policy preferences. The Department of Education and the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management are asking for funds for initiatives not included in the two-year state budget. And on Tuesday, LePage rolled out a proposal to create 22 new state positions to combat drug crimes — 14 Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents, four drug prosecutors and four district court judges — without identifying a funding source.
Complicating factor No. 3: Legislative budget writers who hoped a promising forecast for state income and sales tax receipts would make their job easier were disappointed when a revenue estimate issued in February remained essentially unchanged from previous estimates.
Complicating factor No. 4: The two-year state budget was balanced in part by a provision that charged a legislatively appointed task force with finding $40 million in tax breaks to eliminate or scale back. That task force fell short of its charge, putting $40 million in revenue sharing funds for Maine towns and cities — and residents’ property tax bills — at risk. As a result, lawmakers dug into reserves and undedicated state revenues to meet their obligation to municipalities. That removed about $20 million from the equation that could be used to fill a budget gap.
Complicating factor No. 5: Another budget-balancing provision charged LePage’s Office of Policy and Management with finding $34 million in state government savings. Both LePage, through his spokeswoman, and Democratic legislative leaders distanced themselves from the cuts when they were first proposed last fall. The proposed cuts inevitably include some difficult choices. Another inevitability is that balancing the state budget will have to incorporate some of the proposals.
Complicating factor No. 6: While LePage decided against fully participating in the budget process, he decided it was necessary to restore the $21 million to the state’s rainy day fund that lawmakers relied on to fulfill the state’s revenue sharing obligations. His administration managed to find the $21 million needed from other, reasonable sources within state government — a balance in the Department of Education and anticipated savings from reduced retiree health care costs. That’s the proposal the Appropriations Committee’s Democrats approved Friday, along with $17 million in additional spending.
Now, a proposal that replenishes the state’s rainy day fund, but further complicates the state’s immediate budget situation, will go to the full Legislature. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette doubts LePage will agree to it.
The fact that LePage administration officials — some of whom are veterans of state budgeting — were able to pinpoint available funding to restore the state’s rainy day fund balance points to exactly why the administration should be taking a more active role in resolving the state’s budget imbalance. The executive branch has direct access to information about the state’s finances. That means executive branch officials are in a better position than lawmakers to find budget-balancing solutions.
We’re not arguing LePage’s administration has a magic solution to the state’s immediate budget problems. But the administration’s full participation could put an end to the growth of this list of complicating factors — if only LePage would allow it.