AUGUSTA, Maine — With cuts in federal stimulus funding and continued slow revenues expected, state officials next budget year will need to focus on consolidating services at all levels of government, according to several of Maine’s veteran lawmakers.
From municipal to county to state government, many administrative functions are likely to come under scrutiny for possible consolidation as legislators seek ways to trim expenses.
“The bottom line is we have too much administration in too many areas,” Gov. John Baldacci said in a recent interview. “We need to consolidate those back-office administrative functions so you get the resources to the citizens and taxpayers.”
He said local and county governments should consider following the example of state government in consolidating such functions as payroll and bookkeeping instead of having each government agency doing its own.
“A real sleeping giant in Maine is the county governments,” Baldacci said. “There are a lot of opportunities for county governments to really be the central point for municipal and school administrative services.”
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said that with the loss of federal stimulus funding, reduced state revenues as a result of the recession and increased costs of government services, cutting administrative costs will be a high priority for lawmakers.
“We can’t afford to do things the same way anymore,” he said.
Diamond said the creation of the state Corrections Board to oversee county jails is an example of how to reduce the property tax burden. He said the state and local governments need to look at all ways to cooperate and consolidate to provide services at less cost.
“Consolidation itself needs to be, has to be a major point, a foundation in the next Legislature,” he said. “We can’t continue to go on as we are with individual units, 500 towns doing their own thing. We can’t afford it.”
Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, is the ranking GOP member of the committee. He has served as both finance commissioner and education commissioner in previous administrations. He said the financial problems affecting all levels of government make consolidation efforts more likely.
“I think there is a greater chance for some municipal consolidations, both at the individual municipality level and multiple municipalities and further consolidations of county-state functions like law enforcement,” he said.
Millett said he doubted that even significant consolidations would be enough to address the financial issues facing all of Maine governments from the smallest towns up to the state itself.
“I have told those who have asked that I think it will take a dozen $100 million ideas to solve what we are facing in January,” he said.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said she is unsure which consolidation ideas will gain support, but she is certain lawmakers will discuss ways to encourage further efforts to save taxpayers from unneeded administrative costs.
“No one is pretending that the next legislative session and gubernatorial administration is going to have it easy,” she said. “It’s going to continue to be tough.”
Cain said the way lawmakers have worked over the last two years is an example of bipartisan cooperation to work through difficult budget choices. She said that cooperation would be needed to work through the next budget, which will not have the benefit of considerable federal stimulus aid.
“We showed we could do it with the county jails and that consolidation is saving the taxpayers a lot of money,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. “There will be more proposals next session; I know I am thinking about a few ideas.”
He said he has not made final any proposals, but he believes there are significant opportunities to achieve savings by consolidating law enforcement activities and the administration of other municipal services.
“I expect you will see a lot of bills coming out of my committee dealing with these issues,” he said. “That’s in addition to the bills I will be putting in.”
But not all lawmakers are sure Mainers are ready to embrace efforts that some would see as eroding local control and decision making. Sen. Gerald Davis of Falmouth is the GOP senator on the Criminal Justice Committee. He said the results of school consolidation are mixed, and he is not sure how other efforts to promote consolidation will fare.
“In Maine, loyalty to the towns goes very deep and has deep roots,” he said. “I think it has to be cooperation first, and consolidation will take a long time.”
Davis acknowledged that counties in other states often provide the services that cities and towns in Maine provide. He doubts counties can play the same role in Maine.
“Counties are not as powerful as towns,” he said. “Towns are what runs Maine.”