November 12, 2019
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Budget process a welcome return to normalcy

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Maine lawmakers must still approve a biennial budget before they adjourn next week.

Members of the Legislature’s budget writing committee have agreed on a state budget for the next two years. It pares back some of Gov. Janet Mills’ spending requests while increasing current funding for education, workforce training and health care. It does not raise taxes and expands property tax relief programs.

“We’ve secured strong bipartisan support on a budget that prioritizes property tax relief … and makes significant investments in health care, education and our workforce,” Sen. Cathy Breen, the Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “I’m grateful that my colleagues and I on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee could restore the longstanding tradition of bipartisanship to the budget process.”

Like all state spending plans, it isn’t perfect. It is, however, an appropriate reflection of what the state’s spending priorities should be, although we remain concerned that it commits the state to a level of spending that will be problematic if an economic downturn comes.

The plan deserves the support of the Legislature, which is scheduled, by law, to complete its work next week. The budget proposal, which was approved by 11 members of the Appropriations Committee, must be approved by two-thirds of both the House and Senate to be sent to Gov. Janet Mills for her consideration. She signalled her support of the budget, which largely mirrors the spending plan she presented in February.

“This compromise agreement takes important, forward-looking steps to invest in Maine’s future by expanding health care, improving our education system, providing property tax relief and saving money in the Rainy Day Fund,” Mills said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “I applaud both Democrats and Republicans for working together to reach an agreement that makes critical investments in Maine’s future over the next two years.”

It is important to appreciate that lawmakers and the governor worked on building a two-year budget in a collegial, cooperative way. There were no public ultimatums, no threats of a government shutdown. Of course, not everyone got what they wanted and there are likely to be last-minute tweaks as the Legislature winds down. But, the budget — and its bipartisan support in the Appropriations Committee — signals a return to the necessary and productive politics of compromise and negotiation.

“After months of work and many late nights, the Appropriations Committee has reached an agreement on a two-year budget for Maine state government. Not everyone got everything they wanted, but that may be the sign of a fair budget agreement,” Sen. Jim Hamper, the lead Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

“While it is a relief that the committee was able to reach a near unanimous vote on the budget, I still have serious concerns that the rosy predictions of future revenues are unrealistic and may cause the budget to fail to meet its revenue projections,” he said.

The Appropriations Committee package calls for $7.98 billion in spending over the next two fiscal years, slightly less than Mills had proposed, but still a roughly 11 percent increase over the current two-year budget. It sends an additional $18 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund.

The budget allocates $125 million to fund the voter-approved Medicaid expansion, which took effect last July. This funding will be matched with nearly $700 million in federal funds. It would raise state funding for K-12 education by $111 million, less than Mills had proposed. It also includes funding to raise minimum teacher salaries to $40,000 a year.

The budget allocates an additional $75 million to property tax relief by increasing the Homestead Exemption by $5,000 to allow Maine residents to exempt $25,000 from their property taxes and expanding the Property Tax Fairness Credit to include an additional 13,000 Mainers.

It also increases revenue sharing from 2.5 percent to 3 percent next year and almost 4 percent in the following year.

“House Republicans are pleased that their property tax relief proposal is included in the budget, but remain concerned about the lack of savings and long-term sustainability of new spending,” their spokesman John Bott said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News. Two Republicans on the Appropriations Committee did not vote in favor of the budget plan.

Beyond the budget, lawmakers face additional funding decisions as they work through bills that were essentially set aside to determine whether they should receive state funding. Many worthwhile bills sit on what is known as the Appropriations table, including proposals to continue state funding for the sensible Mainers Feeding Mainers program that provides locally grown products to Maine food pantries and to lower prescription drug prices through imports from Canada. Legislators will also consider a borrowing package.

This budget is an important investment in Maine’s future. And the process of crafting it represents an important return to cooperative government.

 



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