State budget fight pits people against ideology

Democrats in Augusta last week rolled out a smart, skinny budget to counter the proposal that Gov. Paul LePage presented earlier this year.

The budget prioritizes property tax relief, funding for education and investment.

It’s a far cry from LePage’s effort, which prioritizes meanness and failed notions of trickle-down economics.

Democrats call their budget “The Opportunity Agenda.” The name outlines the general philosophy of their plan: To make investments that give individuals the best opportunity for success.

For folks who don’t work inside the State House, the fighting over the two-year budget looks a lot like a three-act play. The governor introduces his ideas – which in LePage’s case are uniformly rejected by most Democrats and Republicans. Democrats present the outline of an alternative. Just before the deadline, Republicans and Democrats come together on a plan that can survive an anticipated gubernatorial veto.

At least that’s what’s happened in the past.

The State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

But the conflict inherent in the system misses an important underlying point. For the most part, fighting over the budget is limited to what’s around the edges.

Yes, there are significant policy disagreements, and there is a real fight every year around issues such as taxation and spending on anti-poverty programs. That said, there is also broad agreement around much of the budget, which is not particularly controversial.

Democrats start there with their plan. They are proposing to fund baseline services consistent with the existing budget, which supermajorities in both chambers of the State House agreed to during the last budget negotiations.

The current two-year budget is about $6.8 billion. Democrats would propose to increase that amount to about $7.5 billion. I know, the so-called small government types just fainted.

But much of the increase is paid for through economic growth and new revenues, particularly from the sale and taxation of marijuana.

The Democrats are projecting, somewhat conservatively, new revenues of about $265 million.

And much of the new spending is allocated toward reducing property taxes.

Property taxes are regressive. They are especially hard for people living on a fixed income. They’re also the hardest tax to be addressed at the state level because they are set locally.

The Democratic plan attacks the problem in two ways: Directly, with new aid to taxpayers through an increase in the Homestead Exemption and the Property Tax Fairness Credit; and indirectly with more support for towns and cities through full funding of K-12 education and an increase in revenue sharing.

The big fight between Republicans and Democrats will be over the 3 percent surcharge on families who earn more than $200,000 a year.

Republicans strongly oppose the surcharge. Democrats keep it as part of their plan. The resolution of this policy dispute is at the center of budget negotiations, with both sides so far firm in their positions.

Voters have made it clear that they want better funding for K-12 education, and property taxes are a significant burden, hitting seniors hard especially in southern Maine and along the coast.

Other parts of the Democrats’ budget shouldn’t be controversial, but the jury’s out.

The plan includes targeted investments in areas that used to gain broad, bipartisan support: roads and bridges, research and development, workforce training. But in the hyper-partisan politics of the day, a fight is possible.

The Democrats’ plan calls for bonding to fund these areas, plus an expansion of broadband access, creation of a student debt relief program and new money for the state’s business incubator program.

You’ve heard it before, but it’s definitely true. Budgets are about more than money. They are moral documents that outline our priorities and define how we go about taking care of people in our state.

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that the Democrat’s “Opportunity Agenda” will be adopted in full. But it is a thoughtful starting point that tackles some of the major challenges facing the state.

“Our Opportunity Agenda takes a comprehensive approach to the problems facing our state and provides a pathway that would make a real difference in the lives of Mainers,” said Speaker of the House Sara Gideon. “It puts Maine families first, giving them the tools they need to build the future they deserve. We do it by lowering property taxes, making education attainable, and promoting job growth and small business development.”

Democrats are holding a town hall on the Opportunity Agenda at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 13 at the Bangor Public Library, 145 Harlow St.

The plan is not without political risk. It does include an increase in spending that will be twisted into all sorts of political mischief.

But this budget blueprint makes a statement that Maine can’t cut its way to prosperity. We need to invest in our people and our institutions.

“Along with every challenge comes an opportunity, and Democrats commit to being the voice of the people in this budget debate,” Gideon said. “We know that’s what Mainers want and we intend to deliver.”

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at