AUGUSTA — The past, present and possible future of the Maine Legislature passed before the eyes of the Appropriations Committee Tuesday as lawmakers began arriving at the State House for today’s opening of the second regular legislative session.
Panelists on the Appropriations Committee convened four days of hearings Tuesday to review funding requests sought by Gov. Angus S. King in his $25.6 million emergency spending bill. Presentations by Janet Waldron, commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, consumed most of the afternoon, which was perked up by more good economic news.
Waldron said total state revenues continued to chart upward during the month of November, exceeding projections by 8 percent, or $10,106,942, to bring the year-to-date surplus for fiscal 1998 to more than $68 million. When added to the existing pool of one-time cash infusions from balances in various state accounts along with revenues anticipated from the cigarette tax, the surplus could exceed $220 million.
How to dispense all that money will be the principal preoccupation of the Legislature, whose leaders met Tuesday morning with the governor to discuss potential tax relief options. King also met privately with members of the Appropriations Committee before the panel got down to the business of reviewing his supplemental budget package.
But before lawmakers finished with Waldron’s department request of $4.6 million from the existing surplus, the Maine State Employees Association reminded them of the dark days of 1991. Noticing Waldron was requesting permission to transfer $1.7 million from the state salary fund to offset costs associated with requests in the supplemental budget, the union pointed out there were still hundreds of state workers who remained unpaid from six years ago.
Carl Leinonen, MSEA executive director, said “essential service” employees were ordered by Gov. John R. McKernan to work without pay in May 1991 while other workers took furlough days. Essential service employees were told they would not be paid for those days worked until they retired or left state service.
For Lise Herold, a forest ranger from Liberty, the experience remains a bitter memory. Speaking to members of the Appropriations Committee, she said the gimmick used to save the state a few million dollars had zapped essential service workers’ self-esteem.
“It was like we were either invisible, unimportant or worthless,” she said. “And after all that we did, no one in state government bothered to say thank you or that we did a great job. It was as if we didn’t exist.”
An estimated $1 million is needed to square things away with workers who were deprived of their pay in 1991. Leinonen said since King was open to shaving $1.7 million off the salary budget, the least he could do is pay his employees what they are owed.
“It’s there to pay salaries and he owes them two days’ pay,” Leinonen said. “He should use that money that’s available to pay these people for their jobs. If you work for a day, you deserve a day’s pay. It’s a very simple concept that nearly everyone can understand.”
Sizing up the revenue surplus, Rep. George Kerr, D-Old Orchard Beach, said the Legislature is anxious to erase all of the gimmicks used to prop up the state during the economic slump of the early 1990s. Along with finding $1 million for the unpaid workers, Kerr predicted many lawmakers would look favorably upon eliminating another onerous 1991 gimmick: the 6 percent sales tax.
Despite protests to the contrary by King, who says the state can’t afford the cut, many legislators are arriving in town with the goal of reinstituting the old 5 percent sales tax.
“Revenues are way over what we budgeted,” Kerr said. “I believe that we could be in the area of $230 million available for tax relief. We need to take care of some of these gimmicks, and that could include the penny off the sales tax.”
As he finishes the second half of his first legislative term, Rep. Matthew Dunlap, D-Old Town, said that many of his constituents are not inclined to view the rollback on the sales tax as a priority. They see it more of a credibility issue, he said.
“They think we should do it, simply because we said that we would do it,” Dunlap said. “If nothing else, the Legislature should honor its promises and I agree — simply on principle. I agree that we should bring it back down now that we can. At that same time we don’t want to punch a hole in the boat in case the water gets rough a couple of years down the road. So that’s the single issue that I’m looking at the most seriously.”