The hundred million dollar cost of lawmaking

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, takes a picture of the vote tally board as the Legislature passes a two-year budget. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, takes a picture of the vote tally board as the Legislature passes a two-year budget. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The next time somebody tells you that government has been “cut to the bone,” please do me (and that person) a favor, and whack him or her in the head.

The next time somebody tells you that state government can’t afford something because of “reckless tax cuts,” do the same.

The next time somebody tells you everything would just work so much better, if only for a little more money…well, you get the idea.

Gov. Paul LePage proposed a budget in January that spent $166 million more than the previous biennial budget. This, of course, was after that previous biennial budget had already been inflated far beyond anything rational (over the governor’s veto).

Too much of an increase over too much of an increase equals a whopping increase in just the last two budget cycles. So I wasn’t all that thrilled with that number.

But then I saw the details of the most recently agreed upon budget deal in the Legislature and realized that my already throbbing headache was getting more painful. Spending growth is now scheduled to essentially double, to roughly $300 million, or 4.6 percent over the last budget. Has Maine’s population grown 4.6 percent while I’ve been asleep?

But hey, what’s a few hundred million dollars between friends, right? It is just the people’s money, no need to be judicious with it.

This is what happens when a group of tired, frustrated decision makers — nearly all of whom are good people — essentially give up and just try to get something done, regardless of quality.

Yes, the reported budget deal has some marginal (I would argue borderline inconsequential) income tax cuts, and some mild welfare reform proposals. But bold and visionary it is not. And while everyone obsessed over the politics of a shutdown and who was saying what to whom behind which closed doors in what buildings, lawmakers decided to spend $130 million more.

There are roughly 1.3 million people in Maine, which means the Legislature just decided to spend $100 of my 6-month-old son’s money, $100 of my 8-year-old’s money, $100 of mine, and $100 of my wife’s on things that were not originally in the budget.

That’s on top of the extra $128 LePage’s budget had originally spent against the previous budget. Those numbers, of course go much higher if you only count taxpayers, adults above the age of 18, or registered voters.

Suffice it to say, the Legislature is spending hundreds more dollars that belong to you because governing is hard, and they don’t want to go through the difficult process of taking spending seriously. This is a problem in all parties, but let’s be honest here, it is chiefly a problem of the Democrats.

They were the ones who approved all of the newly proposed DHHS spending, but canceled out the reductions and recalibrations that LePage and Commissioner Mary Mayhew had proposed. They were the ones who insisted on throwing more money, with no tangible metrics for success, at countless departments. They were the ones who ignored the House Republicans’ call for serious spending reductions, while simultaneously ignoring calls for welfare reform and tax reduction for all Mainers.

It is so much of a problem for them that they found a way to spend $100 million more than the budget proposal they had proposed two months ago. Back then, they used the LePage baseline while insisting on spending more on revenue sharing and more on the Department of Education. That would have represented about $200 million in growth over the previous budget instead of LePage’s $166 million.

So somehow, they just magically found $100 million more to spend on things in the course of a few weeks?

And of course, the conservative members of the Legislature, who are actually trying to be responsive to the wishes of an electorate that just made its voice heard on a whole host of issues in this past election, had to pick their battles. What is most important? Tax relief? Welfare reform? Spending? Clearly something had to give if they had to make a deal with a political party unserious about all three.

So, with priorities set at taxes and welfare — two laudable goals — there was no political will to fight the $166 million of growth, or the $200 million or the $300 million.

And what are we left with? A bloated budget that will be the baseline upon which the next, nearly guaranteed to be equally bloated budget is built.

But sure, government has been cut to the bone with reckless austerity.

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.