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Last year, as state lawmakers considered a supplemental budget that included spending of more than $800 million in so-called surplus revenue, we wondered whether the state really had a budget surplus. That’s because so many critical needs — such as behavior health, affordable housing, transportation and substance use recovery — were unmet.
This year, Gov. Janet Mills has proposed a $10.3 billion two-year spending plan that devotes additional state funds — sometimes matched with additional federal money — to many of these areas. The governor’s proposed budget includes a $900 million increase in state spending over the current budget, in part, because the state’s forecast includes significantly higher revenue collections than originally expected for the next two years.
As lawmakers begin their consideration of the governor’s budget plan, several principles should guide their work. First, what is the mission of state government? We believe that its primary mission is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the people of Maine. Defined broadly, that means that Mainers should have access to health care, education, affordable housing and other services they need to survive and prosper.
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. That’s why we are pleased to see the governor include $237 million in funding for behavioral health, with a focus on increasing reimbursement rates so more health care providers offer these services, and $84 million to increase the availability of services for Mainers with intellectual and developmental disabilities in her budget proposal.
Likewise, the governor’s call for $400 million in funding for transportation work meets the state’s long-standing obligation to ensure that basic infrastructure — our roads, bridges, ports — is safe and efficient. The state has a significant backlog of needed infrastructure work and has too long relied on bond money to cover this ongoing need.
We also believe that state government should promote equity — between regions of the state and among the state’s people. Maintaining 55 percent state support for public K-12 education and expanding public pre-K education, and fully funding municipal revenue sharing helps both rural and urban communities. Continuing free community college and boosting funding for the state’s public universities will continue to enhance education equity while also helping to train the workforce that the state’s businesses so desperately need.
These funding increases may not be enough, and already cases are being made that the governor’s budget doesn’t allocate enough funds to child welfare, indigent legal defense and other critical areas.
At the same time, some Republican lawmakers are calling for tax cuts, saying the surplus revenues mean that Maine is collecting too much money in taxes.
As lawmakers consider state financial priorities, they should remember that, in the last year, more than $1 billion has been sent directly to Maine residents. Most Mainers received a $850 check over the summer to help residents deal with high costs because of inflation, and most will soon receive $450 meant to help offset high energy prices. These relief efforts are essentially tax rebates for most Maine people.
We also believe that a bipartisan budget is the best way to build support and trust in Augusta. This requires that members from both parties understand the nature of compromise: No one’s wish list is likely to be met. But, at the same time, there are some priorities — such as protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens, whether they are children, people with disabilities or our older residents — that all lawmakers should be able to agree upon.