It’s easy to look at the top-line details of Maine’s recently passed two-year state budget and conclude that Democrats in the Legislature came out of the ordeal of a government shutdown virtually empty-handed.
Republicans entered this year’s legislative session with a goal of repealing the 3 percent surtax on incomes above $200,000 that voters passed into law last November, and they succeeded. The final budget includes no additional tax on the state’s top earners.
That surtax was supposed to raise more than $300 million in funding for public schools in its first two years; the final budget added about half that amount beyond Gov. Paul LePage’s initial budget proposal.
But a close reading of the budget tells a more complicated tale — a tale that includes some victories for low-income Mainers that mostly happened under the radar, that will prove significant, and that fly in the face of LePage’s agenda.
The two-year budget that just took effect, for example, includes the first increase since 2001 in the amount of cash assistance a poor family with kids can collect through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. On Oct. 1, the maximum cash benefit for a poor family of three will rise to $582 from $485. It’s not a lot of money to survive on, but a 20 percent bump will prove significant for a family living on the edge — easing the toxic stress that goes along with not being able to make ends meet.
Not only that. The budget changed state law to ensure the cash benefit amount rises each year based on inflation. The spending plan also includes funding and a change in state law to start a program that helps low-income families obtain used cars, so parents can attend work or school.
Those initiatives are in there because Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon advocated for them as part of far-reaching legislation she proposed earlier this year to spend the state’s sizable balance of federal welfare funds in ways that actually help low-income families. (The LePage administration planned to use it largely to cover existing obligations, thereby saving state money without providing an additional benefit to low-income families.)
It’s also worth noting what didn’t make it into the two-year budget that took effect — notably millions of dollars in damaging cuts to Maine’s safety net that LePage included in his first budget proposal earlier this year. The budget doesn’t include cuts that would have kicked parents and young adults off Medicaid, and it retains state funding for General Assistance — the last-resort source of aid that residents obtain through city hall or at their local town offices.
In education, much of the increased funding the two-year budget includes will end up in school districts with high proportions of low-income students. The budget, for example, ends the state practice of deducting state aid, dollar for dollar, from those districts that receive federal Title I funds, which are earmarked for high-poverty districts. And by altering the school funding formula, the new two-year budget earmarks more state funds for low-income districts that have trouble raising money from local property taxpayers.
Also important, the budget includes changes that put new emphasis on public preschool and after-school programs — opportunities that can make a difference in academic achievement for students from low-income families.
Many districts, for example, have trouble raising the funds required to start a new public preschool program because state funding doesn’t kick in until after the program is established. The budget that just took effect provides state aid from the start. It also targets a portion of state school aid toward after-school programs.
While LePage and his allies celebrate a state budget that eliminates a surtax on the state’s top earners and claim victory, they’re also celebrating a budget full of policies they’ve consistently fought.