Maine Gov. Janet Mills recently signed a curtailment order to keep the state’s budget stable during this seemingly never-ending period of expanded state power. The order makes use of funding from the federal government, a state hiring and spending freeze and greater-than-anticipated liquor tax receipts – among other one-time tricks – to keep Maine’s fiscal house in order.
While the coronavirus would have hurt state revenue collections on its own, there is no question that Mills’ draconian statewide economic lockdown – and painfully slow reopening – made matters worse.
Recent meetings of the Appropriations Committee reveal the fiscal impact of the lockdown and reopening is not as bad as originally predicted, but there is still plenty of revenue that must be replaced if the governor plans to continue spending as much as she did before signing the curtailment order.
Despite an estimated $1 billion upcoming budget hole, it seems more likely every day. In August, the governor said she didn’t want to cut state jobs, reduce education spending or end entire programs. That doesn’t leave many options on the table for right-sizing state government, but she has asked her commissioners to devise plans to cut 10% from each department under this criteria.
Nonetheless, it is unconscionable for the governor to suggest that no state employee or government program is expendable after single-handedly forcing hardship upon tens of thousands of Mainers. The premise is particularly insulting when you consider the fact that she is primarily responsible for the explosion in state spending before the pandemic.
If Maine’s budget looked like it did in the last biennium, we could have weathered this downturn just fine. One thing we can say for certain is we wouldn’t be begging the federal government for a bailout. It seems like every statement released by the governor’s team includes a line about the desperate, dire need for more federal funding.
The irony is that Governor Mills is the only person who holds the power to fix the problem, and she has all along. The governor can do just about anything she wants under a civil state of emergency, but she has been incredibly selective in which powers she chooses to wield.
At any moment during this “emergency” — since the Maine Legislature adjourned in March — Governor Mills could have called lawmakers back into session to address the budget. Instead she has decided to govern by edict and make unilateral spending decisions with no end in sight.
But one way or another, the governor and the legislature are going to have to right the ship. The question is not when, but how?
How will she repay Mainers for their incredible sacrifice during the coronavirus pandemic? Will she make the same tough decisions she forced Mainers to make in March, or will she ask them to contribute even more of what little they have to sustain current levels of spending?
In her first budget, the governor repeatedly and notoriously promised not to raise taxes. If you don’t use or purchase tobacco products, you were probably unaware that some taxes grew in the current budget. But in the face of a substantial revenue shortfall, the likelihood of a tax increase has never been greater.
Mainers can’t endure more economic harm at the hands of their government. Lawmakers and the governor must resist every urge to raise taxes in the next budget cycle.