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Update from Augusta
Concluding the budget debate
by Dist. 92 Rep. Matt Peterson
While every legislative session deals with countless policy issues among the hundreds of bills it considers (almost 1600 and counting), there is no place that sets state policy more clearly than the two-year budget.
As the Falls Times goes to press, the Legislature will begin considering the biennial budget that has received unanimous approval by the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs, was printed over the weekend and will be debated on the floor of both Chambers this week.
This budget compromise was developed after hundreds of hours of public testimony and even more hours of negotiations involving administration officials, advocates, lobbyists and members of the legislature. The new budget must take effect on July 1st and therefore must receive support from two-thirds of the members of the Maine Legislature. Maine’s constitution directs that laws become effective 90 days after adjournment, unless they are passed as emergency measures with a two-thirds vote.
That requirement virtually insures that all state budgets are bi-partisan in nature because they must either meet the two-thirds test or be completed by March 31st -- a deadline that is very difficult to meet given the complexity of the budget process.
The Governor uses his budget proposal to reflect his priorities and occasionally to send a message to people he views as hostile to his interests (like proposing to cut state subsidies to Maine Public Broadcasting). The legislature works through these budget proposals -- which are constantly evolving as the Governor introduces “Change Packages.”
The budget process reminds me of my recent experience having some renovations done to my house to make it more accessible. The state budget -- like that building project -- contained a number of surprises once we got into it, took longer to complete and cost more than anticipated. But just like my renovation project -- I couldn’t spend more on it than I had -- so I had to make some choices and make do in some areas. Sound familiar?
Every budget debate that I have observed, both as a legislator and as an advocate, concludes with all sides claiming victory. Expect the same to happen this year. The Governor likely will claim that he has fundamentally changed the direction of state spending and set us on a new path of sustainable government, including a reduction of the tax rate for Maine’s highest tax bracket. Others will claim that they have fought to retain the “safety net” even though it is a bit more frayed than it was in previous years.
Others will claim that the budget went too far in cutting this or that, while some will argue that the reductions or tax cuts did not go far enough. This is as predictable as the plots on many prime time television shows.
There are important questions that must be answered by this budget, and these are the areas where I will focus my attention during the debates.
First, have we just shifted the tax burden from the state income tax and sales tax to the local property tax? Known among advocates for municipal issues in Augusta as “shift and shaft” have we just reduced funding for state initiatives or mandates and left them for municipalities to fund?
The property tax burden in the River Valley is already an issue for many of our residents living on a fixed income or struggling with the economic fallout from the recession. Our local leaders have worked hard to balance local budgets and keep the property tax burden as low as possible. Reductions in state subsidies -- for education, general assistance, or revenue sharing -- can create additional burdens for our municipalities.
If this budget merely shifts the burden for paying for services from the state to the municipalities -- I will not support it.
Second, does the budget provide adequate funding for infrastructure investments -- maintaining our roads and bridges as a key example? Such investments are important on many levels. The quality of our roads means additional safety in all our travels -- especially when the weather creates challenging conditions. Just as important, infrastructure projects create quality construction jobs that cannot be “exported.”
I have met many people in the River Valley who made a transition from work at the mill to work in heavy construction -- like roads, bridges or public utilities. These are quality jobs that allow people to maintain their standard of living, even as employment in the mill has become more limited.
An infrastructure investment in transportation resources insures that we can maintain a diverse economy that includes tourist visits. Those visits contribute to our area as well. It is not just the direct jobs, either. Ask anyone who owns a convenience store near a road construction project and you’ll likely hear about some very good months of business. We all benefit from investments in infrastructure and if this state budget does not make room for such investments, I won’t support it.
Finally, the state has a responsibility to provide for folks who cannot adequately provide for themselves. Our seniors, children, people with a severe disability, or those with debilitating medical conditions, deserve our support so they can maintain themselves with dignity and remain a part of our community.
Health care providers, facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes, as well as community based service providers should receive the resources they need to continue to serve all our citizens. If the safety net has been undermined, I will not support the budget.
This week will likely tell the tale. I will be listening carefully to the debate on the floor and all the information I can get from my colleagues and other experts. The three big areas of concern I have described above will inform my decisions as the budget is discussed. As always, I welcome you input and feedback as well.
Contact me by e-mail at email@example.com, or call me at (207) 776-8051. In next week’s column, I will give more details about the final shape of the budget.