March 11, 2010

Baldacci fund cuts draw little criticism

— The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — Trying to bridge a budget gap of more than $900 million, Gov. John Baldacci has called for deep cuts in social-service funding, major sacrifices by state workers and heightened income tax collections. He also has proposed draining the state's reserves.

But in these recessionary times with unemployment on the rise, reaction to steps that once would have stirred protests remains muted.

In the Sherlock Holmes story, it was the dog that didn't bark that was the key. In Maine's budget debate, it's been the critics who have tempered their criticism that just about sums things up.

Lawmakers who originally took up the governor's plan to cover a $340 million budget hole several months ago marveled at the acquiescence of its targets, including social service agencies and state employees.

In early April, Reps. Emily Cain, the Democratic House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sawin Millett, the Republican House lead on the panel, agreed separately that despite proposed budget cuts that would include eliminating more than 300 positions, negative feedback had been limited.

Now, a month later, the state revenue picture has darkened dramatically and Baldacci has put forth an updated plan to cover an additional shortfall of $570 million.

Baldacci has avoided seeking more work force reductions, but is calling for two dozen unpaid government shutdown days, a hold on merit pay increases, deeper human services cuts and tax adjustments designed to collect more revenue.

On Jan. 9, Baldacci proposed a two-year General Fund spending package of $6.1 billion that the administration said was $200 million lower than two years ago.

Baldacci's plan relied largely on a combination of cutbacks, fees, minor new taxes and anticipated federal stimulus money.

Administration officials say the governor's revised package, if approved, would set state general fund spending for the upcoming two years at $5.8 billion.

''Things are difficult, but they could have been much worse,'' Baldacci said as he unveiled his revisions on May 1, noting the availability of enhanced federal aid.

Leaders of the Democratic House and Senate majorities have been reserved but not hostile, while ranking Republican lawmakers have expressed disappointment that the governor has not proposed what they call fundamental changes in governmental structure.

The governor's revised package would drain state reserves, drawing on $75.5 million from a budget stabilization fund in 2009 and 2010 and $40.6 million from a working capital fund.

Baldacci has won support from the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, whose chief, Tarren Bragdon, said ''his priorities of reducing the aggressive growth of many state programs make perfect sense, given the condition of the state's economy.''

The Democratic Senate chairman of the Appropriations panel, Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham, said the relatively low-key level of complaints at a public comment hearing on the new budget made last Monday ''a telling day.''

''They've resigned themselves,'' Diamond said. ''They know there's really not too many options.''

Longtime human services advocate and lobbyist Betsy Sweet says that for human services advocates, Diamond probably has it right.

''Protect people and live to fight another day,'' she said.

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