June 06, 2020

Baldacci runs out of options

Gov. John Baldacci looks more stressed than usual lately, as he should. Forever the consummate politician, Baldacci held off the piper just as long as possible and now faces the truly hard work of governing – setting priorities and balancing the state budget honestly, as directed and expected in our state constitution.

As a former longtime political reporter who covered Baldacci and interviewed him for stories over a long career – his and mine – I knew from the start he would have a hard time in Augusta. I had seen how the place worked and I knew Baldacci eventually would have to make the really hard spending choices he avoided in Washington but, as governor, would haunt his days and nights.

I saw it happen to then-Gov. Angus King, an independent who took office in January 1995 on one of the biggest swells of goodwill seen in Maine in recent times. King was sure the state bureaucracy could be corralled and re-created to “run like a business.” Overtaxed Mainers gave him a chance to prove it.

In King’s first budget, he was short about $60 million, so he proposed the private and impressive Productivity Realization Task Force. As an enthusiastic new State House reporter, I was sure it would not be as boring as it sounded. I was so wrong.

It took me a while to get it: King could not bring himself to cut $60 million in state services, nonprofit contracts, school funding and dozens of other spending lines so he left a $60 million hole in the two-year state budget and left the Legislature to choose between the task force gamble or finding the money itself.

In the end, King was short, but by erasing hundreds of vacant-but-funded state jobs and making other “efficiency” changes across state government, he was able to get pretty close to the $60 million. At least on paper, and that’s what counts in Augusta.

Before the task force even issued its report, King’s hand-picked chairman admitted the state does not and could not “run like a business.” How could it when there is no incentive to make money at the same time it must continually keep pace with rising costs and new or expanded services?

In Baldacci’s first two-year budget, he avoided making difficult choices by “leasing” the state liquor business. He assured legislators it would all work out and everyone would be held harmless. Everyone would be happy. As with King’s proposal, the Legislature could accept that or they could find, in Baldacci’s case, $150 million in cuts or new revenue.

In his second budget, Baldacci proposed selling off the lottery and even taking out a hefty bank loan of sorts to balance the state’s day-to-day budget. The lottery idea flopped after Mainers realized they had been duped on the liquor deal, which would cost Maine $300 million in non-property tax revenue over 10 years in exchange for a one-time budget bailout of $150 million.

The loan idea flopped when the public joined Republicans and embarrassed Democrats to stop it. Under the current budget, Baldacci built in nearly $40 million in savings through school consolidation and gave the Legislature the same choice his predecessor offered: By building the savings into the budget, lawmakers could accept the consolidation plan or find the savings themselves.

After the school savings were tallied, the governor realized he needed still more money, so he introduced jail consolidation. You can’t blame county law enforcement officials for being astonished that the state, which has driven up so many of their controversial costs in recent years, now wants to control the cash register.

Today, Baldacci still finds he needs more money or savings to keep up with increasing costs and declining state revenue projections. He has called for sweeping consolidation of most state departments – is there anything left in Maine to merge? – and cashing out whatever vacant-but-funded jobs remain on the books.

Last week, Baldacci also announced funding cuts to service providers in a true and painful effort to balance state revenue and expenses. The time to pay up is now; the piper is calling and there is nothing left to shuffle, lease, sell, borrow or refinance.

It’s no wonder the governor looks stressed.

Liz Chapman Mockler lives in Bangor.

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