Thursday, May 26, 2005

Editorial: Where’s the relief?

Published in the Current

(May 26, 2005): Gov. John Baldacci is about to stick it to Maine taxpayers because he won't – or can't – make the hard choices we need our leader to make.

After proposing the state borrow nearly $450 million to cover day-to-day operating expenses, and getting it past legislators, who should have stood up to that kind of ploy, Baldacci has reversed himself.

He says his change of heart is because the federal Base Realignment and Closing Commission has proposed closing Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and downsizing Brunswick Naval Air Station. He should have said his change of heart was because running state programs on a credit card is bad government.

Either way, to get out of the borrowing hole, he and Democratic leaders in the Legislature have asked all state departments to submit revised budgets with 5 percent across-the-board cuts.

That’s not a bad start, but across-the-board isn’t the way to go. Specifically, cutting state aid to local schools – as proposed by the Department of Education Tuesday and described on Page 1 – is the opposite of what should happen.

Admittedly, those reductions are from amounts significantly higher than last year, and will still result in net increases in state aid for Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland.

But by removing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from local school budgets – $108,000 from Cape, $254,000 from Scarborough and $209,000 from South Portland – Baldacci’s plan goes directly against the efforts of citizens, legislators and even his own initiatives to increase state aid to education.

He set out this budget season to ramp up state school funding – in response to statewide referenda demanding tax relief. He even made some headway toward that goal – though not enough.
And, now he's already backing away from the little ground the state has gained because he can't seem to balance the budget.

The problem is not that the state is giving too much money to Maine's towns – just the opposite. Rather, the problem with state government is that it spends too much money just running itself.

Surely the Department of Education can handle deep cuts in its staff, without backpaddling on aid to local districts. Many of the department's workers seem to be constantly revising the Byzantine rules of the Maine Learning Results, sending teachers, administrators, students and parents into expensive annual conniptions trying to figure out what state regulators want, and how to give it to them.

Other Education staffers, perhaps trying to save their own jobs, came up with this ridiculous proposal, which would tear down the fragile beginnings of tax reform in Maine. Their usefulness in state government – and that of anyone who directed them to do that work – should come under close scrutiny.

There are also 500 vacant positions in state government that are included in the budget and could be eliminated without hurting anyone. Baldacci could consolidate government departments, too. He could also raise more revenue by raising the cigarette tax or the sales tax.

Perhaps Baldacci already expects to pay for his budget antics in next November’s gubernatorial election. But that should not prevent a man who has spent much of his adult life in public service from listening to what the people want and need.

He needs to make hard decisions now. One of those decisions should be to act on what the people are saying. And this, in case he doesn't know, is what they say: Raise – not lower – state aid to education. Lower significantly – not some small amount like 5 percent – state spending on administration and overhead.

The people of Maine need tax reform. School funding, as one of the major cost-drivers, is a good place to start injecting more state money, to reduce schools’ pressure on local property taxes.

But as state school funding climbs more slowly, the goal of real tax reform is farther away. And what matters to most of us is not that Baldacci pays later, but that we end up footing the bill now.

Jeff Inglis, editor