Monday, March 10, 2014
By GERALD WEINAND
ROCKLAND - Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed a supplemental budget Thursday, which sets spending limits for the rest of the fiscal year that ends on June 30.
They did so by removing the more onerous proposals from Gov. LePage, while covering a $152 million year-end shortfall. Some of the things LePage proposed included eliminating the Drugs for the Elderly Program, eliminating the cost of living adjustments (COLA) for retired state employees, and reducing reimbursement to critical access hospitals and cuttingoutpatient services by 10 percent. All were rejected by a unanimous Appropriations Committee.
The committee will now focus its attention on Gov. LePage's proposed budget for the next two years, which begins on July 1 and runs through June 30, 2015.
But before the committee tries to fix the budget, Democratic leadership should do something else -- put it to a vote and make all lawmakers go on record and say what they think of LePage's plan. Once that's done, the committee can get to work on a budget that meets the state's needs.
The proposed LePage budget has stirred controversy because, among other things it would:
• Suspend revenue sharing, in which cities and towns across the state receive a total of $220 million from state coffers.
• Reduce the number of households that would qualify for the circuit breaker property tax rebate program, especially affecting single persons.
• Disqualify homeowners under 65 from the homestead property tax exemption program.
• Create a new sales tax on downloaded digital products.
• Allow harvesting of timber in state parks.
• Authorize a $100 million bond to build a new prison.
• Authorize $70 million for the purchase of new laptops for public school students.
• Reduce the Clean Election Fund by $4 million.
• Eliminates the elderly low-cost drug program.
The most unpalatable part of the proposed budget is the two-year suspension of revenue sharing.
The Maine Center for Economic Policy has prepared a report on the impact on the budgets of every town in Maine. It shows a loss in revenue that will either mean the elimination of services or an increase in local property taxes.
Already city and town managers are railing against LePage's proposed suspension, and the pressure is building on legislators from both sides of the aisle.
The budget must be passed by the end of June, giving the Appropriations Committee just three months to work the bill and send it to the Legislature for debate and votes. But many aspects of LePage's proposal are objectionable to most Democrats, and even some Republicans.
The Democratic leadership of the Legislature is putting on a performance to demonstrate that they can be conciliatory, that they can act like adults. The public will never even notice such gestures, and Gov. LePage has no regard for such niceties.
Meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee will waste the next three months trying to turn a dead horse (LePage's budget) into a something that will at least pull a wagon -- a creature certainly to be dispatched with a swift gubernatorial veto.
An alternative is for Democratic leaders to simply bring Gov. LePage's proposed budget up for a vote, after as few public hearings as necessary to get it through the committee process. Republicans will be forced to choose between their responsibilities to represent their constituents or their loyalties to the Blaine House.
Democrats have the votes to ensure that LePage's bill wouldn't pass, but the maneuver would put their colleagues from across the aisle on record as to whether they support the draconian measures listed above.
In short, Maine Democrats should call for an up or down vote on Gov. LePage's proposed FY2014-15 budget, with no changes. Give Republican lawmakers a chance to defend it on the record, despite its sure defeat. Voting to shift tax burdens to local municipalities would certainly be a campaign issue in 2014.
Gerald Weinand is the editor of the political blog Dirigo Blue and is a licensed architect in Rockland.