Time for a real budget discussion in Augusta, please

The State House in Augusta in December 2014. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

The State House in Augusta in December 2014. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

It’s that time of the year again. The snow has stopped falling (at least momentarily), baseball is fast approaching, and winter is melting away. Mud is overtaking the state, reminding us yet again, as it does every year, that at times it can be more slippery than ice — and always dirtier.

In Augusta this time of year, they usually find themselves sinking into a different kind of morass than a muddy driveway, though: the state budget. These discussions usually begin the same way: with a deep sense of trepidation from every lawmaker. Regardless of what one’s fiscal priorities are, the reality of the state’s finances are likely to put a kibosh on them.

Once the Appropriations Committee begins its work, they’ll begin to hear from the various groups affected by the governor’s proposal. Most often, those testifying will be against whatever changes are being proposed, especially cuts. The problem is that they’ll usually do so without offering alternatives — either in the form of revenue enhancements (tax increases, for those of us who speak English) or cutting other spending elsewhere. Instead, these special interest groups will present a parade of horrible consequences sure to result from the proposed changes.

This year, much of the discussion will focus around two areas: Gov. LePage’s proposed elimination of municipal revenue sharing and his tax shift plan. There have been, and will be, local officials from all around the state denouncing these plans, both in the committee hearing room and the op-ed pages. The administration has been pushing back against this argument, pointing out ways in which the towns are overspending. They’re absolutely right to do so: much of the wasteful spending in this state occurs at the municipal level, and it’s high time that is pointed out.

The pushback from local officials has been twofold, as they’ve complained about the burden of unfunded state mandates as well as pointing out their almost total reliance on property taxes for revenue. Just as the federal government places unfunded mandates on the states that tie our hands, so too does the state with towns and cities. These mandates need to be examined in a comprehensive way so that the costlier ones can be eliminated. They also should be in a state of constant review, so that mandates don’t just stay on the books out of apathy.

The issue of local revenue sources is also a legitimate one. While most other states allow for a local option sales tax, Maine does not, leaving local governments dependent on property taxes. If revenue sharing were eliminated, towns should be given more options for other means of revenue enhancement than just raising property taxes. A local option sales tax wouldn’t work everywhere, but it could be effective in many of the areas that spend the most, giving them another choice.

At the same time, Maine does not utilize its local government effectively. While they’re hugely important elsewhere, counties do not do nearly as much here, making regionalization efforts that much more challenging. If the state truly wants towns and cities to spend less, county government should be empowered to do more as a vehicle for regionalizing services. This can make government both more efficient and effective, as it has all over the country.

It’s right that we, as a state, are finally beginning to examine our local government, but we need to look at more than just spending. We need to have a real discussion about the scope and structure of government at all levels in this state, not just a back-and-forth about which programs to cut or which taxes to raise. That’s the budget discussion that this state really deserves out of Augusta.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.