PORTLAND — Gov. LePage has laid out his budget, and a Maine aphorism comes to mind, “You can’t get there from here.”

The Press Herald editorially expressed its skepticism: It “sounds good. But is it too good to be true?”

The editorial noted that the governor’s budget message is painfully short of hard numbers – real data, revenue estimates, the cost savings from proposed program cuts.

The governor has told those bent on tax- and budget-cutting what they want to hear, but after reading the governor’s message, one comes away with the feeling that it just doesn’t add up – 2 and 2 is not 5.

For example, state roads that, by every measure, are falling apart and have been underfunded for years cannot be made safe (much less improved to meet today’s needs) by refusing to bond for needed improvements.

That simply makes the problem worse by forgoing the federal dollars these bond projects generate.

The governor’s position is more inexplicable given that he knows federal highway subsidies have trended down for years.

The governor’s proposal to end indexing Maine’s fuel tax, to enable this revenue to keep up with inflation, makes no sense.

This only makes the problem worse – there will be less money to meet highway needs.

Maine’s base fuel tax is already too low – adjusted for inflation, it is less than it was in the 1920s; moreover, base fuel tax rates have not been increased in years.

If the feds contribute less; if we won’t bond; if our own fuel tax levies will not even keep up with inflation, or put us where we were in the 1920s – where will money for Maine’s highways come from?

The governor’s assertion that “. . . savings at the MDOT and general fund dollars” will produce the revenue needed does not pass the straight-face test.

What savings, what general fund revenue? The general fund is $780 million in the hole – that’s why we’re engaged in massive budget-cutting.

Allocating more general fund dollars to meet critical highway needs would make current budget cutting even more difficult.

And the Maine Department of Transportation budget has been parsed by bipartisan committees for years – there are no new savings at the MDOT. In short, the means proposed by the governor to meet state highway construction needs are not credible.

In keeping with the theme – “tell them what they want to hear” – the governor proposes $200 million in tax cuts. This will push the general fund shortfall to a billion dollars, and will make the budget-cutting process even more difficult.

Calling it a “jobs” budget is illusory. The Reagan tax cuts did not produce jobs – the Bush tax cuts have not produced jobs – the relative tax stability in Maine over the last 10 years has not produced jobs.

The siren song that “tax cuts” are the key to job growth may be what people want to hear – but it’s simply not true. Look at the historically low-tax states; they should be booming in this recessionary period – but they are not.

Almost without exception, low-tax states have low per capita income and high unemployment – who needs it?

In sum, the governor’s tax cut proposals are not good for Maine.

The governor’s budget correctly proposes that we discharge two long overdue obligations.

The first one is to Maine’s health care providers. A good start was made in the recent supplemental budget. The next two or three budget cycles should continue these payments.

Second, Maine must continue correcting the mistakes of the past by lowering our unfunded pension liability. But this step cannot be completed in one (or even several) budget cycles. The obligation is too large.

We are moving in the right direction – we should continue.

But we must give ourselves the time needed to meet this obligation in an orderly manner by amending constitutional language that requires us to move faster than is prudent.

Meeting these two obligations too quickly, on the backs of current state employees, the poor and legal immigrants is a cynical, mean-spirited failure in the governor’s budget proposals.

The obligations must surely be met, but the governor’s budgetary steps to the goal are too draconian.

Finally, the governor’s one-dimensional approach to the budget – cut, cut, cut – is unrealistic.

Recent bipartisan deficit reduction bodies at the national level have all recognized that budget cuts must be combined with some tax increases and with the prudent use of borrowing powers.

We can quibble as to how much of each is needed, but Maine’s government is no exception to this received wisdom.

 

– Special to The Press Herald