Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address on Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Politicians don’t like limits.

The currency of the elected leaders — the store of value that is the medium of exchange between them and the people they represent — is made up of the various promises they make. These promises purchase the support that sends them to office, and then keeps them there. Most of the time, these promises are paid for by funding from the state or federal treasury.

Politicians long ago figured out that identifying — or sometimes inventing — problems, and then proposing to solve them with a new government program or benefit, was a great way to gain votes. As time has gone by and we have seen an explosion of public spending at all levels of government, this fact has animated the impulse to do so.

This is a somewhat inevitable characteristic of democratic government. There is a rather famous quote, attributed — inaccurately, it turns out — to the 18th-century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler, that sums up the problem: “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury.”

Questionable attribution aside, the truth of this statement is widely recognized. Democracies must guard against the impulse to make too many promises, leaching off the productivity of its citizenry more and more each year, overburdening itself with reckless and ever-growing spending.

Which is, of course, exactly what has been happening. The yearly federal budget deficit has been out of control for two decades, but the irresponsibility has only been accelerating of late. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deficit was already just under a trillion dollars by 2019 under the supposed “fiscal discipline” of a Republican president. It exploded to $3 trillion by 2020.

The current fiscal year alone — the months since October 2022 — the federal government has already accumulated $460 billion of deficit, and is on track for roughly $1.4 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The future is even grimmer, with the CBO predicting yearly deficits of $2.7 trillion by 2033.

Later this week, President Joe Biden will be making a major budget announcement which he claims will help “bring down the deficit,” by (of course) featuring a hefty tax increase. The White House claims his proposal will cut the federal deficit by $2 trillion in total, accumulated over 10 years, or an average of about $200 billion per year. Such economic forecasts are famously nonsense, but even if they were accurate, such savings would be borderline insignificant against the aforementioned $2.7 trillion deficit we would face by then.

The reason for this absurd irresponsibility? No limits. Politicians of all stripes are all too happy to promise new programs and defend old ones, with no impulse to control themselves or live within any constraints. The debt limit is a theatrical joke, there is no balanced budget requirement, and there are no real restrictions on spending in any way.

At the state level, Maine does, of course, have a balanced budget requirement, but that alone doesn’t control spending. There was an attempt in the past to institute a Colorado-style “taxpayer bill of rights” in the early 2000s, but that effort failed. Had it succeeded and been implemented in 2010, it could have produced cumulative savings for Maine taxpayers of more than $3.5 billion.

A mild budgetary limit — supported by Gov. Janet Mills, then a state representative — was introduced and signed into law in 2005 by then-Gov. John Baldacci, seeking to slow year-over-year state spending growth once Maine reached the 55 percent state share of education spending threshold.

Predictably, Mills no longer wants to be governed by this restriction that she once supported, and is seeking to blow past the statutory limit by changing it by (of course) to the exact amount she wants to spend, a difference of about $400 million.

And why? Because politicians don’t like limits, and will take any opportunity they are afforded to ignore, go around or eliminate whatever weak limits they are occasionally subjected to. But we, as voters, shouldn’t let them get away with that, and should in fact institute more restrictions on them. It is the only way we will ever get control of government spending.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...