Considering how this year started, the surprise story to come out of Augusta could be that there is any good news at all.

The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee gave us such a story by its vote Monday on a plan to fill a $310 million hole in the state budget. The supplemental budget, which will now go to the House and Senate, balances the budget without a tax increase and may end up putting some money away in the state’s savings account.

The bipartisan teamwork on the Appropriations Committee speaks well for the likelihood that this package will get the two-thirds support it needs in both houses to become law immediately. While there will be pain in the form of cuts to education, social services and municipalities, none will be as bad as they looked in late December.

The Legislature caught a break or two that made this outcome possible. After a long series of months in which revenue came in below forecasts, collections began to level out this winter. And federal money included in the jobs bills gave lawmakers a little more to work with.

But it’s really the people in Augusta who deserve credit for keeping the session from dissolving into a dysfunctional mess. Starting with Gov. Baldacci, who sent clear messages about where he stood on taxes and spending cuts, it ran through the committees of jurisdiction that listened to hundreds of hours of testimony and executive department employees who worked to find best ways to achieve the savings required. As unhappy as people may be with the final result, most Mainers would agree that it could have been much worse.

Which is not to say that all the problems are solved. Even if the Legislature passes this budget, there is still a great deal of work to be done. This budget weathers a crisis, but it does not address the underlying weakness of a Maine government that does not collect enough revenue to meet its promises to people. The next Legislature will come to office facing yet another structural gap that will require service cuts or revenue enhancements to fill.

Efforts to streamline and consolidate delivery systems remain controversial,  and the current Legislature, which will have cut $800 million in the last two years, has not left any easy money lying around.

But given what they have had to work with over the last two winters, current lawmakers from both parties have had shown an ability to work together and reach a responsible middle ground. As things have been going these days, that is good news, indeed.
 


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