A couple weeks ago, Gov. Paul LePage issued his highly anticipated budget “curtailment order.” The order is simply his proposal for cutting the current state budget due to the less-than-projected funds coming into the state coffers.

A review of the state revenues, from which the budget was built nearly two years ago, showed there is a shortfall of approximately $35.5 million. That means the current two-year budget is not balanced as required by the Maine Constitution.

The constitution authorizes the governor to make whatever curtailments necessary to keep the budget balanced, however, the constitution also requires the reductions to be reasonably equitable across state government. His proposed cuts included $12.5 million in education and $13.4 million in health and human services.

The cuts to these two departments represented about 73 percent of the total needed curtailment and since these same two departments account for nearly 80 percent of the expenditures in the budget, the constitutional guidelines for equitability were technically met. There will be a vigorous debate on the specifics of his proposal including public hearings and work sessions over the next few weeks.

Before people get too concerned about the feared effects of the governor’s order, let’s consider the facts. The governor’s proposed cuts will no doubt be changed by the Legislature in the coming weeks. Concern for the specific reductions is understandable, however this is only the first inning of a nine-inning game that could end up going into extra innings.

There are much greater challenges ahead like the $100 million shortfall in MaineCare funding that needs to be addressed as well. Both the $35.5 million and $100 million shortfalls will be the first items dealt with in the beginning of the new legislative session this week.

The state’s two-year budgets are based on the revenue projections and expenditures for two years in the future and therefore they are never accurate. There is always a need for additional adjustments to keep the budgets balanced. Those adjustments are called supplemental budgets. When I was the senate chairman of the budget committee (Appropriations and Financial Affairs) we had to pass five supplemental budgets to keep the working budget balanced. By the way, we passed those budgets by unanimous votes of both Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

This current budget ends June 30, 2013, and the new budget, which must be passed in the upcoming legislative session, begins July 1, 2013, and goes through June 30, 2015.

What appears to be a quagmire really isn’t that difficult to understand. First, legislators have to make sure the budget stays balanced through the end of June and that can be accomplished by passing supplemental budgets. This should be completed by February or March. Maybe.

Second, they must build a new two-year budget that again is based on projected revenues two years in the future. This task needs to be accomplished before July 1, 2013, or the state will be without an operating budget resulting in the unthinkable – a state government shutdown.

Maine experienced a state shutdown in 1991 in what many called the worst crisis in modern state government. At that time there was a Republican governor, John McKernan, and a Democratic-controlled Legislature. McKernan’s finance commissioner was none other than Sawin Millett. The governor and Legislature did not get along, which is putting it mildly. There was genuine hate and discontent between the two sides and their supporters. Sound familiar?

This new legislative session has an uncanny similarity to 1991. There is a Republican governor and a Democratic-controlled Legislature and their relationship has been a bit frosty; in fact, they’re not even talking to each other. Oh, and Sawin Millett, the finance commissioner 21 years ago during the shutdown, is LePage’s finance commissioner today. I might add, Millett is one of the most honorable people in state government.

It takes two-thirds of the Legislature along with the governor’s approval to pass a budget and that needs to happen before adjournment in June – or else.

Unfortunately, there are only a few people left in state government who remember the devastation caused by a state shutdown. Institutional memory is critically important. Without it, ignorance can be disguised as courage.

Bill Diamond, of Windham, served as District 12’s senator from 2004-2012. He is also a former Maine Secretary of State.


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