Gov. Paul LePage made formal his budget curtailment plan Thursday and — predictably — there were widespread expressions of horror that he could be so financially heartless.
Why the surprise?
LePage has been warning that this was going to happen for months. We even knew well in advance the exact dollar amount that has to be trimmed by the end of the fiscal year: $35.5 million. What we didn’t know was how the curtailment plan would be parsed across state government programs, but we knew it was going to be painful.
When the details were released, the criticism was immediate.
The departments that will bear the brunt of the cuts are the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, respectively. Given that Maine spends more money to fund these departments than just about anything else, there’s no great mystery to why they receive the greatest cuts. That’s where the most money goes.
Will it hurt? Absolutely.
But, since LePage doesn’t have the option of printing money in the State House, the cuts have to be made to balance the budget — a constitutional requirement that he is mandated to meet. There is no glee in doing so, but it must be done.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, issued a statement Thursday after LePage made the curtailment order formal, saying that his decision to cut $12.6 million from schools “is shortsighted and forces communities to balance the budget on the backs of our students.”
And what about their parents who have been hauling around high tax rates to the point of exhaustion? Would it be better to increase that burden and diminish family resources?
“The question remains,” Kilby-Chesley said, “how are our students supposed to succeed when the governor continues to take from our public schools?”
There is no easy answer, but we must look reality straight in the face.
Maine’s revenue is below projections because of a straggling economy. There is no expectation that revenues will suddenly rocket upward in the new year, and legislators are committed to controlling taxes, so the only option left is to cut spending. Had the Legislature not already done some cutting, we might be looking at an even greater and more painful budget shortfall.
Making the situation more dire is that even with the $13.4 million cut to DHHS, that department is still looking at a $100 million shortfall by June 30 that will require adoption of a supplemental budget.
It’s worth noting that in 2008, then-Gov. John Baldacci cut state aid to schools by $28 million through curtailment, and cut another $38 million the same way the following year, so the order signed by LePage — while painful — is a lesser cut than that imposed by the previous administration and cannot fairly be characterized as LePage targeting schools.
He is in the same bind as previous governors, and is using the same tool to repair the budget and meet a constitutional requirement.
Legislative leaders have called the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee back to work early to begin reviewing the curtailment order, and they will begin that work Friday. The full Legislature will not convene until Jan. 8 — the following Tuesday — but starting early gives Appropriations members a head start on what is going to be a series of tough decisions.
LePage’s curtailment order is temporary and can either be supported or changed by the Legislature.
In the weeks leading up to his decision to sign the curtailment order, LePage sought advice from department commissioners and reached out to legislative leaders from both parties for input, which is a promising start to bipartisan agreement as we face a short timeline to adjust the budget.
“We need to get to work early to ensure our budget is balanced in a fair and reasonable way,” incoming House Speaker Mark Eves said, which is what taxpayers expect and need.
While Maine’s budget dilemma might be considered small when compared to the looming federal fiscal cliff, it’s a very real crisis that needs decisive, reasoned — and immediate — action.
What we don’t need is accusations, criticisms, political posturing and finger-pointing. That, as Congress consistently proves day after day, doesn’t solve a thing.