August 26, 2019
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LePage, Dems should own up to cuts — or else face worse alternative

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The Maine State House in Augusta is reflected in the windows of the Burton Cross building.

While Maine’s Constitution requires that the state budget be balanced, it’s common practice to “balance” the two-year spending plan with aspirational savings.

In the mid-1990s, Gov. Angus King’s Productivity Realization Task Force had a $45 million savings goal in order to keep state spending in check. The task force’s work ultimately shrank the state’s workforce by more than 1,000 positions.

Gov. John Baldacci’s last state budget in 2009 included a savings goal of $10 million, a goal which the Baldacci administration and the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee collaborated to meet. And Gov. Paul LePage’s first budget in 2011 charged the Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force with finding $25 million in savings from all corners of state government.

Another task force in that budget had the job of finding $2.5 million to cut from the budget of Bangor’s Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center. Later in that two-year budget cycle, a specially appointed MaineCare Redesign Task Force had to find $5.25 million in immediate Medicaid budget cuts — a goal it didn’t meet — and recommend long-term, money-saving MaineCare reforms.

It’s that budgeting tradition that led to the late September release of a report from LePage’s Office of Policy Management recommending $35.5 million in cuts that affect the budget of nearly every agency in state government. The two-year budget that took effect July 1 charged that office, led by former state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, with finding savings of at least $34 million.

It’s not quite honest to call a $6.3 billion budget that relies in part on tens of millions of dollars in unrealized savings “balanced.” Still, the practice of charging different task forces or offices to find the savings after the budget is passed has its advantages.

While the practice puts off some of the most difficult decisions in a state budget, that delay is often for the better. It’s one less item for members of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee to address in the heated, sleep-deprived frenzy that characterize budget negotiations.

The delay can also be an effective — or perhaps, the only — way to make policy that involves tough choices. When those choices are forced in a budget that needs to stay in balance, the escape routes are limited.

For better or worse, the practice also delays the politically unpopular. No matter the hour, far-reaching cuts to state government are never politically popular.

LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, tried to distance the governor from the cuts when they were announced — cuts suggested by LePage’s own Office of Policy and Management.

“Mainers need to understand that these cuts were a directive of the Legislature,” Bennett told the BDN. “The governor did propose a balanced budget.”

And, indeed, that budget proposed by LePage assigned the task of finding $34 million in undetermined savings to the Office of Policy Management. While LePage vetoed the budget passed by the Legislature, the budget that became law retained that original LePage proposal.

Democratic legislative leaders distanced themselves, as well, calling the cuts damaging to the state’s economy and public schools. Democrats did say they’re willing to make difficult decisions in order to realize the savings goal; they said they wanted to approach the cuts in a way that’s strategic and smart.

As the debate over LePage’s recommended cuts continues, Democrats in the Legislature will be responsible for more than criticism of the reduction recommendations. They’ll have to develop alternatives of their own if they fully reject the governor’s.

Ideally, LePage and Democratic legislators would all own up to the task before them if they want to see thoughtful changes made to state government operations. Otherwise, the state could see even more painful and less deliberate cuts made through the first alternative left if lawmakers and LePage can’t come to an agreement: an across-the-board, LePage-ordered spending reduction.

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