Members of the new Legislature took their oaths back in December, but their work didn’t really start until Friday, when Gov. LePage delivered his two-year budget proposal.
In it he calls for eliminating municipal revenue sharing, shifting $200 million onto property tax payers in cities and towns. He also calls for deep cuts to health and human services programs, including eliminating state assistance for prescription drugs for the elderly.
And he proposes flat funding education, amounting to cuts in most districts, which would have to make up for inflationary increases by eliminating programs.
But it’s not all bad news: The governor does not touch about $400 million in tax cuts that were passed by the last Legislature but don’t go into effect until the next fiscal year.
Although the tax cuts are broad-based, those at the top of the wage scale will have the greatest benefit, while low-income and middle-class Mainers will more than pay for any tax cut they get in the form of higher property tax bills and program cuts.
Last November the voters made certain that a budget like this would be dead on arrival. LePage is still the most powerful person in Maine government, but without control of either the House or Senate, he has no chance of passing an initiative like this. His budget just gets the process rolling.
Now it’s up to the members of the Legislature to decide how to proceed. The initial response from legislative Republicans was not very encouraging. Their leaders acted as if we had not just gone through an election in which their tax policy was a major talking point for both sides, and the Republicans lost.
“This budget gives us a blueprint for a right-sized government,” said House Republican Leader Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport. “It sets us in the right direction by keeping the tax burden on Maine families low while paying our bills and reforming our overly generous welfare system.”
In the weeks ahead, members of the Appropriations Committee will come to terms with this question: With whom is the state government overly generous — the elderly who can’t afford medication, or the wealthy who will see a couple of points shaved off their tax rate?
Since state law requires a budget with two-thirds support — with or without the governor’s signature — lawmakers will have to cross party lines and compromise over a budget. What they end up with probably won’t exactly match the kind of priorities either party ran on.
But one thing is certain: The budget that comes out of this Legislature shouldn’t look anything like what the governor submitted Friday.