Well, here we are again, folks: We’re soon to see new budget discussions unfolding in Augusta. They’re necessary because of the (welcome) news that the state took in far more money in revenue than it needed, leaving Maine with a budget surplus.

While it’s not quite the tension-racking spectacle that occurs with a budget deficit, since Maine must live within its fiscal means, we still need a supplemental budget to address the surplus. That means that, once again, Democrats and Republicans will return to the negotiating table in the hallowed room of the Appropriations Committee to hammer out the details on how to spend the new windfall.

Although they didn’t know exactly what revenues would be, the majority party knew that this would happen when they pushed the biennial budget through on a party-line vote earlier this year. They also likely strongly suspected, given the increase in federal aid contained in the latest stimulus package, that there was going to be a surplus rather than a deficit. This was all part of their plan, and it helps explain both why Democrats were willing to do it and why Republicans put up only token opposition: They all thought they’d be right back there in a few weeks, discussing how to spend more money. In essence, the biennial budget was a mere placeholder. This supplemental budget is the truly important spending document this year.

Democrats, of course, are coming to the table with a lengthy wish list, including all of the new spending they didn’t have the time to cram into their rushed budget earlier this year. Essentially, they want to continue the reckless spending spree that they went on with their past two budgets, expanding state government to new heights. Indeed, their wish list is so long that it won’t even all fit in the supplemental budget – the Mills administration is also pushing a package of bonds to borrow even more money.

The problem with rolling out new spending priorities is that it raises the baseline for spending in the future. We’ve already seen this with Mills’ first two budgets. She increased spending by a billion dollars first, then Democrats maintained that level and characterized it as a “baseline budget” earlier this year. That’s complete nonsense, of course, but it’s par for the course in Augusta, and it regularly occurs when federal aid gets doled out to the states. It happened during the last economic crisis in 2008, and it appears poised to happen again – unless Republicans are able to stop it.

First and foremost, they ought to resist any and all bond packages this year. With a budget surplus filling the state’s coffers, there’s no need to pile on more borrowing. Rather than spending the entire surplus and then some, Democrats should have included any additional spending they wanted to pursue in the regular biennial budget. They didn’t do that because then they would have been (rightly) open to criticism of overspending again, and even if most of the media in the state ignore the trend, it would be easier for the voters to notice as we edge closer to an election year. The problem is, now they actually need Republican support, and the Republican Party shouldn’t continually play the role of Charlie Brown to the Democrats’ Lucy.

Republicans can’t merely offer opposition, of course. That would play right in to the Democrats’ hands, enabling them to label Republicans as mere obstructionists. Republicans should say no to some things, but they have to come up with their own counterproposal on how to account for the additional funds, or else the Democrats will just spend it all. Fortunately, they have this time, and it’s a pretty reasonable list: tax relief for the unemployed, increasing the homestead exemption reimbursement and raising revenue sharing. They’re not simply proposing a set of sharp tax cuts for everyone, but instead targeted relief for those who need it.

That’s not only a responsible approach, but it’s also one that Democrats will be hard-pressed to simply dismiss out of hand – especially because they’ve advocated for some of these proposals themselves. Given that, hopefully they’ll be willing to return to the negotiating table and incorporate some of these ideas. If not, it proves that they’re hopelessly the party of big government tax-and-spenders. Even if all of the budget surplus isn’t returned to taxpayers as it should be, Republicans might have a chance of getting some of it back – if they still remember how to fight.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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