Why spending matters

You can count on one hand the number of times the Maine budget has gone down in the last 40 years. In fact, you can count it on one finger. It has happened exactly once, in the 2010-2011 biennium.

The budget in question, which dropped spending from roughly $6.2 billion in the 2008-2009 biennium to roughly $5.7 billion in 2010-2011, happened under the watch of Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat.

Hardly a move toward government reform, it was essentially a “no choice” budget, as the state had to grapple with imploding revenues related to the ongoing recession.

Somehow, $500 million was eliminated from that budget without major reforms that actually lowered costs in the long term (such as the MaineCare eligibility adjustments Maine has pursued recently), and we all survived. Makes you wonder just how important all that spending really was.

The following budget cycle, spending went right back to where it was before — about $6.2 billion — as if nothing had happened.

When legislators consider budgets, they basically approach the issue by looking at two things: baseline spending and new budget initiatives. Baseline can be viewed as spending according to current law and policy, which is built upon what was done in the previous budget cycle and statutory requirements. Budget initiatives are new spending proposals and changes (including, sometimes, cuts).

Therefore, “what we did last time” is an incredibly powerful force in any budget. It is either the foundation upon which more is built, or it is the the starting point by which we judge changes.

Under that mentality, it is no surprise that state budgets always increase, particularly when so much of the Legislature is new and inexperienced, and people in powerful committees have very little perspective about what they are looking at.

It isn’t their fault. Imagine trading places with a freshman legislator.

You are a regular person and you want to make a difference, so you choose to go out into your community and ask for people to support you. You get elected. You show up to Augusta full of inspiration and dedication to protect the taxpayers, and suddenly you have to go through hundreds of pages of spreadsheets with dollar figures in the millions and tens of millions, and you know very little about what any of those numbers actually do.

Every line you read has a lobbyist attached who puts pressure on you and tells you all the reasons why that figure is not only necessary, but needs to be higher. You are suspicious, but you don’t hear from anyone advocating reductions, and you are uncomfortable cutting something that people tell you is needed.

Then start adding in things that have federal dollars (particularly 2-1 matching funds) attached, and you can see why the pressure is on defending spending rather than cutting it.

So, in reality, every budget is the building block of the next one. If we accept something that is $200 million or $400 million more, that means that the next budget will have an additional $200 million or $400 million added on top of that already inflated number.

That is why it is so important to be nitpicky about state budgets, rather than just throwing up our hands and declaring that these battles are too exhausting to fight.

The budget proposed this year by Gov. LePage increased spending by $166 million, or roughly 2.59 percent. Every single department in state government, except for the Department of Education (due to imploding student enrollment) and the Maine Community College System, saw their budgets increase, dramatically in some spots.

That should be unacceptable to Maine citizens, particularly after an election where the people clearly spoke in favor of limiting government and reining in spending.

Unfortunately, that level of spending is only the beginning. This proposal was a mix of additional spending in some areas, and spending cuts in others that added up to a total net spending increase. However, we are already seeing Democrats in legislative committees, such as the Health and Human Services Committee, approve the proposed additional spending, while deleting the proposed spending reductions. More spending gains momentum.

Unacceptable spending growth is now morphing into insane spending growth. This is apparently the message your lawmakers heard last November. And people wonder why citizens are cynical about government.

Witnessing this, it can often feel like it isn’t worth fighting against a deck seemingly stacked against the Maine taxpayer. But we have to.

Mainers should call their legislators, particularly the appropriators and members of key committees, and demand they pass a responsible budget that not only tackles tax reform, but gets a grip on ever-growing spending.

Flatlined spending vs. the previous budget is the bare minimum acceptable result in Augusta, and in reality, we should be looking to achieve significant reductions far in advance of that. Only then will we truly get control of the frivolous waste we have seen for decades in Augusta.

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.