A debate like that between state Sen. Joe Perry and the Bangor City Council will play out in town halls and the State House throughout the winter. The bottom line is that government doesn’t have enough money to continue to pay for the services it now provides. Remedying that problem will require reducing government administration and cuts in programs and services or raising taxes.
As this work goes on, lawmakers must ensure they don’t simply pass problems — or tax increases — down to the next level of government.
That was the crux of the brief debate between Sen. Perry, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee, and the Bangor City Council. On Saturday, the council published a column on these pages criticizing Gov. John Baldacci for proposing cuts in funding that the state passes to municipalities as part of his proposal to close a $438 million gap in the current two-year budget. Cuts to revenue sharing, education and the Circuit Breaker program will simply increase the burden on the city’s taxpayers, the nine councilors wrote. “While the end result of the proposal is a balanced state budget … A significant portion merely shifts taxes from one level of government to another,” they said in the column.
On Monday, Sen. Perry spoke during the public comment period before the start of the regular council meeting. He criticized the councilors for simply blaming Augusta for the revenue shortfall. “If that’s your position, that we need to increase taxes at the state level because there’s no place for the city to cut, I think it’s an obligation to stand up and say that to the public,” Sen. Perry said.
About 46 percent of the revenue collected by the state is sent to municipalities and counties in the form of funding for K-12 schools, revenue sharing, general assistance, jails and dozens of other areas. So, it seems reasonable for the state to expect municipalities to eliminate duplication and consolidate services as the state has moved toward. What is not reasonable is for the state to simply assume that municipalities will allow needs to go unmet, especially as the continuing economic downturn increases demand for some social services.
The governor’s budget, for example, proposes significant cuts in general assistance, the catch-all help program larger communities offer to their residents. Because they pay out the most in general assistance, the reduction in state support would nearly all fall on Bangor and Portland. Bangor’s $2.1 million annual general assistance budget would be cut by $550,000. Requests for the assistance have increased in recent years as the continuing recession has left people without jobs or with depressed incomes.
At the same time, the state’s commissioner of health and human services is right that communities should work more closely with the state to see if needs can be met through other programs.
As the governor said last month when he unveiled his budget proposal, lawmakers must ensure that limited dollars go to services, not bureaucracy. A further guideline should be that dollars first go to programs with proven results. Another top priority should be those core services that enable the state’s residents to navigate daily life.