It’s an unfortunate colorful coincidence that Maine’s summer of crippling red tide has come during a budget season of oppressive red ink.

The state’s finance commissioner, Ryan Low, is talking about the possibility of a $100 million budget deficit, even before saying the governor also wants plans for the worst-case scenario. (Low said this in a July 13 story by Mal Leary of the Capitol News Service.) Times are going to be rough.

A sluggish economy only makes it more amazing Gov. John Baldacci and this Legislature muscled tax reform through to enactment. (Some wise minds have even dubbed this Maine’s miracle.) Though this laudable policy achievement should insulate Maine from future economic downturns, it offers nothing toward filling the current gap. That is still the provenance of cash, either unspent from the budget or raised from outside sources.

Gov. Baldacci has exiled talk of tax increases as a solution. By eliminating the easiest, most direct answer, however, he’s essentially endorsing creativity, thriftiness and sacrifice as preferred options for balancing the books. We would suggest two other guiding principles also for consideration: value and effectiveness.  

Programs will be cut to balance the budget. Legislators on the Appropriations Committee have virtually said so. Deciding which ones, however, should be cemented in analyses of their results versus their expense, not just the decibel level of their particular constituency.

This is the coldest of approaches, to be certain. But a growing budget gap leaves little room for other concerns; it seems like every time the  members of the Appropriations Committee have met, they are there to address another ignoble figure handed down by fiscal forecasters.

Their task is unrewarding, yet crystal clear.  

Yet too often over the past few years have interested parties clashed over budget cuts, only to preserve funding for programs based on their ideological priorities or agendas, instead of measures of effectiveness. This is a common menu item in Augusta, served in equal portions by lawmakers, agencies, nonprofits and corporations.

Solutions to the deficit are found above this din. As Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of Appropriations, told Leary about the coming budget review, “One of the things I am going to be asking is: Is it really worth doing any more if it is barely functioning the way it was intended to?”

Bingo. If lawmakers are serious about responsive government and a responsible budget, the answer is no.

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