Sunday, April 20, 2014
By Erik Jorgensen and Linda Sanborn
Recently the Maine House and Senate came together to override Gov. Paul LePage's veto of the state's two-year budget. We were among those who voted for Maine people and against a shutdown. It was the right decision for Maine, and we believe it was a significant achievement.
The two-year budget that we passed was a carefully crafted and responsible compromise. It blunted a massive property tax hike, restored critical state aid to schools, saved programs that reduce property taxes for middle- and low-income families and restored funding to help seniors afford prescription medicines.
As members of the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, we spent months scrutinizing every line of the governor's original budget proposal.
HEARING PUBLIC TESTIMONY
We also listened to nearly a month of public testimony. The overwhelming majority of the people we heard from told us the governor's proposal would devastate Maine's cities and towns. There was no way they could absorb the governor's proposed $425 million tax shift, which would have cost homeowners hundreds of dollars in property tax increases.
Every member of our committee, whether Democratic or Republican, came to understand that the governor had it wrong. That meant we had to choose what we would do differently to craft a reasonable and responsible budget.
We began a series of long negotiations to reach a responsible compromise. We talked to each other for many hours a day, often staying in the State House well into the night. We thoroughly researched the entire budget, and our scrutiny produced new savings and revenue that were used to restore many of the essential items the governor wanted to cut.
REACHING COMMON GROUND
We worked to find common ground with our Republican colleagues, and gradually moved closer and closer to a final compromise. The process was long and complicated, but it yielded a responsible result that our committee unanimously supported, something far better than what the governor had originally proposed.
The compromise budget restores $125 million in cuts to revenue sharing (the annual portion of state tax revenue given to cities and towns), replaces the Circuit Breaker cuts with a $29 million property tax fairness credit and restores $9 million in cuts to the Homestead Tax Credit. It also restores $32 million in cuts to Maine's schools, restores basic funding to Head Start and puts Maine on an incremental track to meet the 55 percent mandate for local education passed by Maine voters.
It restores merit, longevity pay and retiree health insurance to state workers, like the State Police, who have not had a raise in over four years, and who, under the governor's plan, would have faced two more years of flat funding. This will allow Maine to recruit and retain the best people and make the government more efficient and effective.
The compromise budget also reforms General Assistance, an essential program for cities like Portland, by strengthening fraud protections, streamlining municipal service delivery, strengthening asset tests and ensuring services go to those with a legitimate need. This will save the taxpayers money and ensure that more Mainers can work their way out of poverty.
FINDING REVENUE SOURCES
The restorations we made and the vital services we preserved required us to find other sources of revenue. The Legislature did its best to make sure that any tax increase would be as painless as possible for Mainers. The compromise budget temporarily adds a penny on the dollar in meals and lodging tax and a half cent on the dollar more in sales tax. These modest adjustments, many of which will be borne by nonresidents, will prevent a major spike in property taxes and save people on fixed incomes from being taxed out of their homes. Again, this is temporary and goes away after two years. We also directed the state to identify $40 million in savings by reviewing and closing loopholes in the tax code.
Again, this budget is good but far from perfect. Of course, that's what it means to compromise. It is a budget that moves our state forward, and one the citizens of Maine can be proud of. It reflects hard choices, choices the governor tried to pass on to local communities, our seniors and property taxpayers. Our budget does right by the Maine people, keeps the state up and running and undoes many of the damaging cuts and tax shifts originally proposed by the governor.
Democrats and Republicans worked together to find common ground and achieved a sensible and responsible compromise.
Reps. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, and Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, are members of the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.