AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a truism in politics that the Legislature “controls the purse strings.” It’s a shorthand reference to the fact that if you want the state to spend money on something, you’ve got to go through the Legislature.
But there’s one state account set aside for the governor to spend, largely at his or her discretion.
This cash is available for both specific uses, such as construction or the purchase of real estate for the state, as well as any expenditure the governor deems to be an “emergency,” a term that’s been interpreted liberally by occupants of the Blaine House.
The governor may spend up to $4,350,000 a year from the account, but in practice, only about $350,000 is ever spent in any given year.
What a governor chooses to spend the money on alludes to the priorities of the state’s chief executive — not so much what they feel the state’s role should be, but what endeavors and goals they personally value.
According to documents about expenditures from the account dating back to 2002, Republican Gov. Paul LePage has taken a much different approach to his contingency fund than his predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.
Since taking office in 2011, LePage has spent $865,000 from the contingency account. Under LePage, the fund has been used largely as the governor’s personal charity account for organizations that benefit those he regularly calls “the most needy,” a group that involves victims of abuse and the mentally disabled.
The lion’s share of money spent from the account under LePage has gone to organizations that fight social ills, such as domestic violence and substance abuse, or to those that work with the poor or mentally disabled.
He’s also splashed cash on early-childhood obesity prevention and veteran’s memorials in Caribou, New Gloucester and Fort Fairfield.
All told, three-quarters of expenditures from the contingency account under LePage have gone to such social welfare organizations and programs.
“Honoring our veterans, helping people in need and contributing to the well-being of Maine’s communities and environment are all priorities to me when considering where to designate support from my contingency fund,” LePage said in a written statement.
That’s a departure from the way LePage’s predecessor, Democratic. Gov. John Baldacci, used the discretionary account.
Baldacci — who spent about $2.3 million during his eight years in office — used the account for a much wider variety of purposes than his Republican counterpart.
In the first two years of his tenure he focused on jobs and the economy, paying for lobbyists to fight the closure of military bases in Brunswick, Cutler and Kittery, and making payments aimed at keeping individual businesses, such as Irving Tanning in Hartland and Atlantic Salmon of Maine in Machiasport, from closing their doors.
In later years Baldacci shifted his focus to arts and cultural endeavors, including several expenditures to help fund the American Folk Festival in Bangor and creative economy initiatives in the Midcoast and St. John’s Valley regions.
LePage and Baldacci also differ in their approach of how often and how much to spend.
On average, Baldacci dipped into the expense account more than 10 times per year. On any given year, there were one or two large expenditures of $100,000 or more and myriad smaller expenditures, even as low as a $2,000 contribution in 2008 for a statewide Africana celebration.
LePage, meanwhile, has opted for fewer but larger expenditures, averaging just five per year since he took office in 2011. The governor’s largest expenditure to date was a $164,800 contribution to Indigent Legal Services, to beef up training standards and salaries for court attorneys assigned to defendants who can’t afford representation.
As for how decisions about spending contingency account money are made, LePage’s communications director Peter Steele said the governor meets “almost daily” with nonprofits, civic groups and individuals all over state who could benefit from a cash injection.
The governor bases his decision on personal and professional experience with each group and the recommendations of those who work closely with them, Steele said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.