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One of the most talked about aspects of Gov. Janet Mills’ State of the State last week was the proposal to return half of the state’s expected budget surplus to Maine taxpayers in the form of $500 checks for most.
Some Republicans criticized the governor for usurping the idea. Former Gov. Paul LePage, who is now running against Mills, called the governor’s plan a gimmick. This is odd criticism since Mills gave Republican legislative leaders full credit for the idea, which may be a hard sell among the more progressive members of the Democratic caucus.
We understand the political popularity of returning money to taxpayers. But the idea of a budget surplus is somewhat illusory. The state is projected to take in $822 million in revenue through mid-2023 than was expected when the governor and lawmakers put together a spending plan last year. The state Constitution requires a balanced budget, so financial allocations and revenues must be the same. Hence, the governor’s proposals to divvy up this money, including putting additional funds in the state’s “rainy day” fund.
To be clear, this surplus comes from a budgetary projection, which could change, and the additional expected revenue is not ongoing, so it can’t responsibly be dedicated to ongoing expenses or programs, such as a permanent lowering of the income tax.
That said, it’s hard to claim the state has extra money when it has so many needs that remain unfunded. Government, of course, shouldn’t be responsible for meeting everyone’s needs and government can’t solve every problem, but a strong case can be made that it should do more to help address longstanding needs.
According to the state’s own data, there were 651 children on waitlists for home and community-based services in Maine in December; 125 of them were in Penobscot County. In some counties, the average time on the waitlist for some services is well over a year.
As of the most recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services, 2,274 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and brain injury were on waitlists for services in September. This is despite the fact that the state is providing these services to more than 6,000 Mainers for the first time.
Some of these children and adults end up in emergency rooms and other inadequate placements as they await services, which are funded by a mix of federal and state money.
These waitlists persist despite the governor and lawmakers putting millions of additional dollars into these programs in recent years.
At the same time, the Department of Transportation has a funding shortfall of $230 million a year, according to a recent assessment by a nonpartisan commission made up of legislators, transportation professionals and other stakeholders. That’s with voter approval of what has become an annual bond issue of $100 million to help pay for road, bridge and other transportation work.
“Transportation needs in Maine continue to far outpace available resources for several reasons including Maine’s large land area, expansive transportation system, relatively low and widely dispersed population, and geology and weather that – while beautiful – are challenging when it comes to transportation infrastructure,” Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said in a letter to lawmakers in January 2021. “The scope of the chronic shortfall is daunting.”
Mills has proposed that $100 million of the projected surplus be devoted to transportation needs, which will help shrink this funding gap. But make no mistake, that shortfall will persist even as policymakers settle on how to spend a projected surplus.
Again, we understand that government funding — which comes from taxpayers — is not unlimited. And, we appreciate the inclination of the governor, Republicans and some Democrats to return money to Mainers to help them weather the ongoing unpredictable economic times. But they should not lose sight of the fact that thousands of their fellow Mainers need support as well.