It’s springtime in Maine, and one sure sign is the hand wringing going on in Augusta over the state’s finances.

As the governor and legislators try to put together a budget, they are dealing with some familiar topics – lower revenues than the state had projected and unpopular taxes and programs imbedded in the governor’s budget.

These perennial problems are once again threatening one of the state’s favorite budget-balancing mechanisms – adjusting the amount of money it gives to local schools. While there is plenty of room for debate on many of the items included in the governor’s proposed budget, the money the state has promised to send to local schools should not be one of them.

It appears the state is going to be short $34 million this fiscal year and $40 million next year, due to lower than expected revenues from corporate income tax. Compounding the problem are two things the governor has included in his budget – a school consolidation plan he is counting on for $36 million in savings and an unpopular $1 tax increase on cigarette packs.

The situation is so bad Education Commissioner Susan Gendron sent superintendents two financial scenarios this week – one shows how much local school districts would get if the state meets its promise to keep inching toward its goal of paying for 55 percent of the cost of education, and the other shows what school districts would get if the state keeps payments at the same level as this year. The problem is, most superintendents have already proposed their school budgets, and local school boards are now working their way toward approving them.

While including potentially unpopular programs in the budget might be a politically savvy thing to do, it sometimes puts the state in precarious situations. Legislators don’t get to consider programs on their merits alone, because if they decide to remove them from the budget they then have to figure out how to plug the financial hole they have just created.

The cigarette tax is a good example. It’s unpopular, and for good reason. Yes, cigarettes are bad for people and putting a tax on them discourages people from smoking them. However, Maine already has some of the highest cigarette taxes in the country. How high is the state going to raise this tax that hits poorest people in this state the hardest? The problem, is if the Legislature decides to trash the tax they’ll be forced to come up with $131 million over the next two years.

Whatever the state decides to do, one thing that should not be negotiable is the state’s plan to pay 52.5 percent of the cost of education in the state. The state promised to pay for 55 percent of the cost of education at least a decade ago. When the state had yet to meet that obligation several years ago, voters mandated doing it immediately. Despite the demand from voters, the governor laid out a plan to do it gradually – something voters had clearly rejected.

Now, the state is considering veering from even that modest plan, and that is something should be unacceptable to our elected representatives, regardless of the challenges legislators are facing as they try to balance the budget.

Brendan Moran, editor

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