Crafting a state budget is hard work. I know. As a legislator in Augusta for 16 years, I helped negotiate over 20 biennial and supplemental budgets. State budgets are not like other laws. They determine not only how we will spend our precious tax dollars but what matters most to our state. They not only address our current needs but how we invest in the coming years. They are the blueprint for Maine’s future and the future of Maine people.
We are fortunate this year. There is no shortfall to our budget, so none of the services and programs currently slated for deep cuts by the governor, such as the Drugs for the Elderly Program or our public health nurses, need be made. We actually have a surplus in revenue, meaning we finally will be able to make long overdue investments in the state’s most precious resource — its people.
The Opportunity Agenda laid out by legislative Democrats proposes to spend some of this surplus revenue in areas of importance to Maine families, such as relief for student loan debt, greater opportunity for the elderly to age in their homes, significant increase in property tax relief for homeowners and greater access to treatment for those addicted to opioids. For the first time, the Legislature also has the opportunity to fund 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education because the voters passed Question 2 in November. Finally, the state can fulfill its promise to the children of Maine and address the needs of our under-resourced schools. All children, regardless of where they live, will have access to a good public education. This is an exciting time for Maine. We are positioned to move forward in ways previously unavailable to us.
There has been, however, a disturbing trend in Augusta in recent years to take budgetary decisions out of the hands of the Appropriations Committee. The budget is too important to be negotiated behind closed doors. I challenge legislators to negotiate the budget in its entirety in the public eye so the people of Maine hear the debate. Voters need to see and understand what their legislators stand for and who they are fighting for in Augusta. How can ordinary people make their voices heard if we don’t know what elected officials are talking about and whose interests they are representing behind closed doors?
I recently attended a town hall in Auburn, where a Republican legislator publicly advocated for a shutdown of state government unless there was a full repeal of Question 2, which uses a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000 to fund public education at 55 percent. I was stunned. Would Republican legislators overrule the will of the voters in order to give yet another tax break to the wealthiest in the state? Don’t all Maine children, not just those living in affluent communities, deserve a quality public education? The time for the debate on the merits of Question 2 was during the election, and the voters made their decision. Their will must be respected. Shutting down state government would be devastating for Maine’s economy and the people of this state. Brinksmanship is not healthy nor helpful at this point.
We on the Appropriations Committee used to remind ourselves that failure was not an option for us. We had a responsibility to the people of Maine to develop a balanced budget that could win the support of two-thirds of the state Senate and House by July 1 so that state government would not shut down. The Maine Constitution required it of us, and we owed that to all the people of the state.
The budget must be finalized in the coming weeks in order to avoid a state government shutdown. Now is the time for Maine people to tune in. Don’t be a bystander. There is much at stake for all of us. Let your elected officials know that you want schools funded at 55 percent, that you want the will of the people to be honored, that you understand that cuts to current state services and programs are not necessary and that it is time to start investing in Maine’s struggling working families. Let them know you expect them to hash out the budget details in public, not behind closed doors.
And, finally, let them know you will be watching and will expect them to act in the best interests of all the people of Maine. It is time for them to govern responsibly and to do so with transparency.
Peggy Rotundo served in the Maine Legislature for 16 years, where she served as chair of the Appropriations Committee. She lives in Lewiston.