The second session of the Maine Legislature, which formally began Jan. 5, is supposed to be the shorter of the two sessions and focused on emergencies. Usually larger, more controversial issues are dealt with in the first session, when the Legislature has more time to deal with them and Augusta is slightly further removed from election-year politics. Neither party likes to deal with hot-button topics when they’re focused on running for reelection; instead, they want to burnish their credentials in preparation for November. While that may make for easy governing and campaigning, it allows legislators to duck the tough issues – and if that’s their primary goal, it’s reasonable to ask why they’re running at all.

During her State of the State address, Gov. Mills unveiled a number of new proposals as part of her proposed supplemental budget. While she didn’t return the entire budget surplus to taxpayers as she could (and should) have, she at least embraced the Republicans’ proposal for another round of direct relief payments. In many ways, the state-level stimulus checks are at this point simply an election-year stunt. With the pandemic seemingly improving in Maine daily, and the foremost economic concern for many being rising inflation, now may not be a good time to be handing out more one-time money to people. The problem with the stimulus checks – especially at the state level, when they need to be part of a balanced budget – is that they take away funds from other priorities. The bad news is that if the money is spent on one-time payments, it can’t be spent on the real, long-term tax relief that Mainers truly deserve and Republicans are ready to deliver. The good news is that the money spent on the payments also can’t be spent on more government spending, as Mills proposed doing with the rest of the surplus.

A problem with much of the rest of Mills’ supplemental budget is that it consists of a number of short-term or one-time initiatives. One of these – Mills’ proposal to make community college tuition-free for the high school classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 – certainly seems reasonable. It is, after all, these classes who saw their high school careers directly affected by the pandemic, curtailing everything from sports to social activities and causing all sorts of hardship. Doing what we can to help those students recover from the restrictions of the pandemic makes sense.

The problem with this approach – similar to the approach used by national Democrats in Biden’s failed Build Back Better bill – is that it sets up future lawmakers for failure. Just when Mainers are beginning to get used to the idea of community college tuition being free, the program is going to expire, and legislators will face the difficult decision of whether to find a way to make it permanent. This will be a hot-button issue in coming years, especially since it’s not just those four years of graduating seniors who were affected by the pandemic.

Moreover, many Maine families will have one (or more) children who qualify for this supposedly one-time program, while they will also have one (or more) children who don’t qualify. This will leave them in the extraordinarily difficult position of having to explain to one child why college is free for their brother or sister but unaffordable for them. That’s why it seems likely that there will be extraordinary pressure on future legislators to make this program permanent, rather than reverting to the pre-pandemic norm. In many ways – on both a fiscal level and a personal one – it would have been more responsible for the Mills administration to either propose this as a permanent program or not at all.

With the supplemental budget, while the governor has the power to propose any policy she likes, the Legislature has the authority – indeed, the responsibility – to carefully review her proposals. With Mills’ willingness to embrace a Republican proposal and her party’s solid control of the Legislature, it might seem that her budget should sail through, but that won’t necessarily be the case, nor should it be. Rather than treating the surplus like a Christmas tree loaded with gifts for everyone, legislators need to remember that every budget is a blueprint. They need to ask themselves whether this blueprint sets up future Mainers for success or failure, not just whether they’ll look forward to taking credit for it on their palm card.

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

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