When we return to Augusta in January, the Legislature will begin the process of re-balancing the budget. As with past recessions, government revenues dropped at the very time the need for government services — like job retraining, unemployment assistance, help with housing, food and health care — increased.

Balancing the budget will require reducing or eliminating important programs that Maine people rely on. The simple reality of this recession is that less money is available to educate our children, provide home care for the elderly, help the disabled, invest in initiatives that grow our economy and other essential services.

This task is disheartening for those of us motivated to run for office by the desire to increase opportunity for the people we serve. We will be cutting $438 million more in state spending, meaning we must meet our obligations to Maine people while funding programs at 2004 levels. It will be hard, but the Legislature can take advantage of these difficult times by being innovative in how we deliver services.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, those hit hardest by the implosion of the financial markets were not the bankers and Wall Street stock traders. Rather, the people who took the biggest financial hit were low income families who were trapped in predatory mortgages or who did not have access to the financial services that could have prevented their personal economic collapse.

As an example, low income families who do not have checking or savings accounts spend more money on fees for services, like check cashing, than those with bank accounts. In an attempt to bring people who do not use traditional banking services into the system, the Legislature will consider creating a Bank on ME working group. This group would be charged with developing voluntary initiatives that increase access to banking for low income people. By improving access to traditional financial services Maine’s working families will be more secure and better able to manage their personal finances.

This is one way the state can use existing resources to improve opportunity for working families.

We must also continue our work to move Maine toward an energy sustainable future. A key component of reaching that goal is creating a policy around energy corridors that maximizes the benefits to Maine’s power customers. Energy corridors capitalize on Maine’s unique position between the abundant renewable power sources to our north and the seemingly unlimited power demand in urban centers to our south.

Regardless of state policy, building and maintaining these corridors will create thousands of good paying jobs for Maine people, but they must also give Maine’s clean energy producers the ability to sell their power to places like Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. They should also result in cheaper power for Maine families and a sizable investment from the companies who benefit. But we only have one shot to get this right, so adopting a sound policy is essential to ensuring the success of this initiative.

These corridors will be the subject of intense debate this session as competing interests attempt to make certain that they have a leg up on the competition. It will be our job to ensure that the energy corridor policy meets the needs of all Maine people and helps bring about a brighter, greener, future for Maine.

Another item sure to stir people’s passion is the need to protect our system of direct democracy. Maine has a long tradition of citizen involvement in the law making process and the citizen’s initiative and people’s veto are cornerstones of that involvement. Unfortunately, we have seen a spike in abuse of the process; predominately through the use of out-of-state, paid-per-signature, petition circulators.

These abusive tactics do not serve our democracy well and the Legislature will examine how we can prevent them from being deployed in the future. Tightening up this process will empower Maine voters and prevent special interests from hijacking an important part of our democracy.

These are just a few of the important issues to be considered by the Legislature in the coming months. With every State House conversation taking place in the context of the budget shortfall, we must be careful not let the global recession stop us from doing what voters sent us to do. Having fewer resources does make the Legislature’s job more difficult; but it is not an excuse to pass over opportunities to improve the lives of Maine people.

Sen. Margaret Craven of Lewiston and Sen. Deborah Simpson of Auburn are both serving their first term in the Maine Senate.

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