Budgeting didn’t have to be this way

Death by a thousand paper-cuts. That’s my impression of the budget making process here in Maine.

To be fair, it isn’t any better in any other state, really. Across the country, governors and legislatures are coming up with budgets that spend billions of dollars, and they are doing it in much the same way we are.

That way is dysfunctional, and no way to run a government.

Maine is coming down to the wire, trying to avoid a government shutdown (which, ultimately, they will successfully avoid). Illinois is on the brink of a government shutdown. Washington state is nearing a shutdown. Minnesota was very close to a shutdown last week, though it seems likely now to avoid one.

Meanwhile, Comcast spends $3 billion each year — or nearly the entire general fund expenditure in Maine each year — on advertising alone. I’m guessing the process there is a tad more nimble and efficient, and they aren’t approving budgets a few days before their next fiscal year.

Which is fine. Corporate budgets should be easier to put together. They have a small group of professionals who are tasked with specific jobs, and they do not have any messy public advocacy, nor do they have nearly 200 people voting on every detail, nor do they have political considerations to worry about.

Then again, they do have shareholders who have a personal stake in those decisions, and whom they are accountable to — almost like voters, you might say. So I wouldn’t say the comparison is all that unfair.

But back to Maine, take a moment to consider what is happening right now in Augusta.

Lawmakers have until the end of this month (a little more than two weeks) to come together and approve a state budget, or the government will shut down.

Putting aside the silly fear-mongering about what a shutdown would mean (not a whole heck of a lot, to be truthful), your representatives in Augusta are doing what a lot of us may have done in college: wait until the last minute and then try to cram.

I don’t know about you, but that particular youthful habit of mine rarely worked out particularly well.

And why? Decisionmaking under the gun is never a good idea. Add in the massive scope of what we are talking about here — a $6.6 billion (or more) two-year budget — and it is an even worse idea. And then, of course, making major changes to Maine’s tax code and playing with imaginary, speculative numbers right up to the deadline makes it all the more horrendous.

“But they’ve been working all this time,” you might hear. And that is true. It isn’t like no work has been done on the budget. Committees have been considering parts of the budget and making a series of recommendations about it for months. There is even broad agreement on a lot of the core pieces.

Then again, when you look at what what legislative leadership is talking about behind closed doors, namely massive income tax changes, large changes to the sales tax, major changes to the DHHS budget, welfare reform proposals, and tens of millions of dollars more for several departments, it becomes very clear that all the work the Legislature put in is outdated and irrelevant.

It wasn’t like they didn’t have time.

Gov. Paul LePage signaled many of his intentions relating to the budget in December of last year. He proposed his official state budget on Jan. 9. It’s now five months later.

In previous years, state budgets have been approved as early as March 10 (1999). Indeed, from 1997 through 2005, the latest the state budget was approved was May 24 (2001).

Yet since 2007, we have consistently brought it down to the wire, passing budgets in June three times (2007, 2011, 2013), and late May once (2009). This year, we are already into mid-June, and we may not have a final budget until the very last moment.

The result? A frantic mess, whereby lawmakers start fiddling with (and adding) tens of millions of taxpayer dollars in their Excel spreadsheets like it is a game, without having more than a very superficial knowledge of what those numbers mean.

Then, at the end, an exhausted and defeated feeling Legislature will feel obligated to pass something that is clearly a bloated mess simply to avoid the supposed apocalypse that is a government shutdown.

They had time. They chose to delay responding to LePage and formulating their own proposals, because no one wanted to be the first to blink. We didn’t see counterproposals — on either side — for three months.

As the clock ticks and we watch the mess this has become, remember that it didn’t have to be this way.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.