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In the middle of last year, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, it appeared that Maine was headed for difficult budgetary times. So, it was somewhat of a relief that Gov. Janet Mills’ budget proposal for the next two fiscal years does not contain significant cuts or eliminations of vital programs or tax increases.
As a result, the governor’s plans, released earlier this month, give state lawmakers a solid framework from which to build sustainable, balanced budgets for the remainder of this fiscal year and for the next two.
“To me, it’s a no-nonsense, no-drama document, plain and simple,” Mills aptly said to reporters on Jan. 8.
The governor’s $8.4 billion budget plan for the next two fiscal years, called the biennial budget, essentially holds state funding flat. There is a slight increase in the overall size of the budget, driven mostly by raises and other adjustments required under collective bargaining agreements with the state’s unionized employees.
The mostly flat budget proposal is possible, in part, because of a curtailment order the governor issued in the summer, which reduced spending by $125 million, mostly by not filling vacant state positions and a reduction in employee travel, and by the infusion of more than $7.6 billion in federal funding that came to the state. Most of the federal money went to businesses and individuals, but some federal funding was for public health and public schools. In addition, state revenues have been higher than expected in the summer, when forecasters warned of a $1.4 billion shortfall through 2023.
The governor’s plan would allocate $61 million to the state’s surplus account, often called the Rainy Day fund. Given the ongoing coronavirus emergency in Maine, this seems surprising. Finance Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa explained to the BDN editorial board this week that because the future is so uncertain, in large part because of the pandemic and its impact on the economy, setting aside this money is prudent. Because the state doesn’t know what’s coming next — with the virus, the budget or otherwise — it could need additional funds in a couple months, she said.
The other significant change is an additional $45 million for public K-12 schools through the middle of 2023.
Mills spoke to the BDN about “the learning gap” that has widened because of the pandemic. Schools switched to remote learning in March when the pandemic first hit Maine. Schools have largely resumed in-person classes this school year, but there are periodic disruptions because of coronavirus outbreaks in communities across the state.
The governor said she worries about students who have lost connections to their teachers, their friends and their schools because of the pandemic.
Her proposed supplemental budget for the remainder of this fiscal year includes an additional $1.8 million for an expansion of broadband.
The governor’s supplemental budget proposal also includes an additional $5 million for COVID testing and vaccinations, and to support Mainers who need to stay in isolation and quarantine because of the virus.
Given the many challenges Maine faces — the pandemic and the economic hardship that has accompanied it and the unconscionable number of deaths from homelessness and substance use disorder, to name a couple — a strong case can be made that Maine should be spending more money.
At the same time, with many businesses still struggling to stay open amid pandemic restrictions and consumer warriness, record high unemployment and a general uncertainty about what may come next, there is good reason to hold state spending steady.
This is the needle that Mills sought to thread with her budget proposals. It is now up to lawmakers to decide whether to follow her blueprint. Barring unforeseen circumstances — which is far from certain this year — she’s offered them a good starting point.