Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will present her two-year budget plan Friday. The proposal is expected to have wide-ranging implications for Mainers, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the governor herself.
Maine Public's chief political correspondent Steve Mistler spoke with Nora Flaherty on Maine Things Considered about some of the initiatives Mainers can expect and why the budget will generate so much scrutiny in the months ahead.
NF: Steve, before we get to some proposals that might be in the governor’s spending plan, can you first talk about why the budget is such a big deal?
SM: Sure. The easiest way to answer that question is that almost anything of consequence that touches Mainers’ lives is in the budget. And it usually comes with a price tag. So let’s say you have children who attend public schools. The amount of state support for their education is in the budget. If you’re a person who qualifies for health care through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, your ability to receive that care is controlled through the budget because while the bulk of the program is federally funded, the state kicks in a significant share. The same goes for other benefit programs for low-income people. The budget also controls how much money goes to support roads, bridges, how much we pay for state law enforcement, our court system, our jails and prisons. Tax increases, or cuts, are also usually in the budget. Even the subsidy that we at Maine Public get from the state is a budget initiative.
You get the idea. And it’s also important to note that Maine is one of the majority of states that requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget. In other words, we cannot deficit spend like the federal government, although it’s worth noting that there have been many state budgets that have used gimmicks to include spending initiatives that aren’t necessarily paid for.
And there are political implications for the governor’s budget, right?
That’s exactly right. Most of the budget - roughly 70 percent of it - is relatively standard fare and uncontroversial. That’s because most of it is spending that just sort of chugs along year to year without much change because it’s essential to government operations. But the rest of it is effectively a political document that reveals the governor’s policy priorities. And that can be controversial. If you recall, more recent budgets under Gov. Paul LePage were the vehicles for some of his most ambitious initiatives - income tax cuts, slashing funding for services like MaineCare. And they led to some of his biggest fights, not just with Democrats, but also Republicans. Fights over the budget are why we had a government shutdown two years ago.
Gov. Mills faces a different challenge. While she benefits from having Democrats in control of the Legislature, she also made it clear during her campaign that she won’t raise taxes. Well, there are a lot of big initiatives that Democrats in the Legislature want that will be difficult to pay for without increasing taxes in some way, whether its funding 55 percent of local education spending or increasing the state’s aid to cities and towns to previous funding levels.Those two things all alone would cost over a half-billion dollars.
So that’s a fundamental tension right there: Mills pledge not to raise taxes and what’s often described in the state house as pent up demand by the Democrats who have been relatively in the wilderness over the past eight years, but who now control state government.
And Republicans are watching. I was talking to one GOP leader today who told me he has a thermometer-like chart in his office that he’s using to track spending increases and he’s just waiting for the spending requests to blow the top off.
Of course, it’s worth noting that spending increased under LePage, but that will quickly be forgotten if Mills’s plan contains extravagant initiatives. I don’t expect it will.
I notice that you keep describing Mills’s budget as a proposal. How come?
Right, that’s because the governor is required to introduce a two-year spending plan, but at the end of the day, the Legislature is responsible for passing it. And that means there will likely be significant changes to whatever she rolls out on Friday.
That’s not to say the governor will be out of the picture once she puts her proposal forward. Her administration will be a key part of the negotiations that take place over the coming months. And those negotiations are always interesting because that’s where the political transactions can really manifest themselves. And, of course, the result of those transactions can have a profound effect on Mainers, especially those whose lives intersect with the government.
Well, so far, it’s been a relatively low-key affair in Augusta since Mills took office last month. And it sounds like that could change in a big way on Friday. Thanks, Steve.
You’re welcome, Nora.