More money, more budget conundrums for state legislators



In a recent news report about the state budget, a reporter opined that it is easier to pass a budget when the state has a lot of money. No. No it is not. In years when there is no money, no excess revenues, no unexpended balances, no bits and bobs here and there, legislators get it. There is no money. The Appropriations Table, upon which sit all bills in need of funding, is tipped on end and all the bills unceremoniously dumped. When there is money? That’s when debates rage over how to spend it.

The state had a surplus in the neighborhood of a billion dollars this year, and Governor Janet Mills (Democratic candidate for governor) promptly laid claim to half of it with a promise to send $500 checks to most Maine households. When Republicans, including former governor Paul LePage (Republican candidate for governor), pushed back with a preference for cutting the income tax or (LePage) eliminating it altogether, Governor Mills doubled down and raised the amount of the checks to $750, then to $850 as the estimate of the surplus increased.

Let’s take that apart. Mainers have been beset with the rising cost of food, clothing, gasoline, heating oil and electricity. Who wouldn’t love to get a check in the mail? Even many Democrats were lukewarm on the checks, but for different reasons, one being a wish to use the extraordinary surplus to take a big bite out of the backlog of state spending needs.

Governor Mills stuck to her guns, noting that checks to taxpayers, a one-time offer, is the more appropriate response to a one-time surplus. Democrats repelled a Republican effort to separate the question of the taxpayer reimbursements from the rest of the supplemental budget, which would have allowed Republicans to support sending the checks but oppose the rest of the supplemental.

Included in the budget is money for behavioral health services, for farmers dealing with “forever chemicals” on their land, a lobster industry defense fund, housing for the homeless, county jails and veteran homes, student debt relief, free community college, continued full funding of the state share of public education and giving the “Rainy Day Fund” a $500 million boost, bringing it to a historic high.

The purpose of the Appropriations Table is to keep the budget balanced. If legislators could vote to enact any legislation, no matter the cost, what would keep spending from piling up beyond the state’s ability to pay? It is appropriators who must decide on these bills, within the constraints of available funds.

Sponsors of bills needing funding must scratch and claw their way to passage of those bills. Anyone who does not put up a fight? Out! Cross-threaded with leadership? Out! Refuse to compromise? Out! Remember, all the bills on the Approps Table have been passed by both chambers to the point of enactment, so it is not like there are wild new ideas in the lineup. They are good to go except for the money. And when we’ve got money? Game on.

One other alternative open to legislators with a bill on the table is to strip out the cost, insert language like “funded by any revenue that may become available” and pass it without funding, allowing the substance of the bill to stand but postponing the funding fight for another day. There is no way to keep an unfunded bill alive into the next session. When the 130th adjourns sine die, every bill not acted upon is automatically and irretrievably dead.

There are about 180 bills awaiting funding on the table, each beloved by some legislator who has spent time and treasure getting the bill to this stage. The estimated total value is well over a billion dollars, while Governor Mills’ budget provides just $12 million to be spent at the Legislature’s discretion. There is some grumbling about the power of the Appropriations Committee, which gets to decide which bills come off the table to be funded, but really it is no different than the power it has within the budget-making process, when it also decides what makes it into the budget and what does not.

In both cases it involves input from citizens, lobbyists and legislators through public hearings that go on nigh unto eternity — at least for the budget. The Approps Table is a bit different in that it is taken up at the tail end of the session, after the budget is approved and the amount of disposable money is known. Policy committees are required to report their priorities to Appropriations and the usual pressure can be brought to bear on committee members, but it all goes down very quickly and there is no recourse from committee decisions. Everybody, even legislators, understands “broke.” But flush? That’s way harder to manage.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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