April 06, 2020

Gov. King’s proposed $25.6 million supplemental budget is a surprise in neither size nor scope. Given the fiscal roller coaster Maine’s been on for most of this decade, that in itself is pleasant surprise enough.

With the revenue surplus projection expected to top $200 million by the time the Legislature convenes later this month, the governor’s plan to spend about one-eighth is restrained and his focus on improving the juvenile corrections system, boosting community-based treatment for the mentally retarded and helping multiple-handicapped preschool children is logical. Society’s most vulnerable took some of the biggest hits during the lean years. Making good on unkept promises and unmet obligations is not just the humanitarian thing to do; it’s the prudent thing to do in avoiding higher catch-up and litigation costs later.

From the moment the surplus bubbled over in June, it has been clear that the decision on how to dispose of first $60 million, then $125 million and now $200 million-plus had enormous potential for political gamesmanship. As an election year dawns, the temptation only grows.

When the surplus was in its infancy, Gov. King said the found money should be treated as a windfall, as an opportunity to beef up the state savings account, to catch up on deferred one-time expenses and to leave some behind for tax relief. Since juvenile offenders, the mentally retarded and handicapped children can by no means be considered a significant voting bloc, the governor should, at the very least, be commended for his consistency.

Now it’s the Legislature’s turn to show it can ponder $200 million in some context other than the ballot box. Already, some lawmakers are criticizing the supplemental budget as not doing enough, not spending enough. That’s somewhat understandable, given the enormous amount of belt-tightening Maine has experienced.

More troubling is the position of those who suggest that spending any of the surplus implies that it all will get spent. Rep. George Kerr, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, worried aloud the other day that the governor’s proposal would only “open the barn door for other requests to come in, especially when we have a surplus of this size.”

Yes, other requests will come. Other requests have, in fact, already come in. Reams and reams of them. The commissioner of every state agency has an obligation to advocate for his or her mission independently from the other commissioners — the prison system cannot be expected to know what the transportation department needs. It’s the job of the elected policy-makers to make the distinctions, to set the priorities, to make the tough decisions.

Gov. King has made his decisions. He’s disappointed a lot of commissioners, department heads and bureau chiefs, and his supplemental package is not perfect — once certainly can question how $2 million to promote tourism qualifies as an emergency — but at least he’s committed something to paper. Now, with a minimum of carping, posturing and nitpicking, it’s the Legislature’s turn.

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