EDITORIAL: Local spending has its limits

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Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to eliminate municipal revenue sharing in the next two-year budget was roundly, and rightly, denounced by local officials throughout Maine. It was a dereliction of duty on the part of the governor, who acted tough while passing all the work and tough decisions to the cities and towns.

Fortunately, many legislators, including a number in LePage’s own party, agreed, or at least they were wary of running for re-election with the governor’s budget on their resume. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee late last week unanimously endorsed a $6.3 billion budget that reduces LePage’s proposed $200 million cut to revenue sharing to $75 million in the two-year budget. The governor has threatened to veto the budget, but it is likely that there is enough support in the Legislature to override the veto.

LePage is threatening the veto because the budget includes tax increases that he cannot stomach. Maine’s local spending, he believes, is out of control, and the only way to stop it is to cut off the spigot and let the cities and towns figure out how to get by with less.

It was unrealistic for the governor to think municipal leaders could complete the kinds of structural changes needed to make up for the loss of revenue sharing in such a short time. You don’t save $200 million through two years by firing a few town employees and forgoing a project or two. It takes a complete re-examination of how business is conducted to save that kind of money while not completely gutting schools and municipal services. Making those kind of changes in a hurry and under the gun is bad policy.

But those changes do have to be made eventually. Taxpayers cannot continue to absorb the kind of annual spending increases that Maine has seen in the last few years. Just a cursory look at the school side of spending shows worrisome growth. In Scarborough, the school budget has jumped from $35 million in 2010 to $38.8 million this year. In the same time frame, the school budget has gone from $37.9 million to $42.98 million in South Portland, and from $28 million to $33.2 million in Biddeford.

The increases are by no means universal – in Westbrook and Windham-Raymond, for instance, school budgets have been kept relatively flat. Nor does it tell the complete story; it leaves out changes in state aid and property valuation, which both affect tax rates.

Some of those changes must come at the state level. Tax reform would take some of the heat off regressive property taxes, for one. And economic recovery, when it comes, should bring with it more revenue, and help guard against tax increases at the local level.

But spending increases year after year are simply unsustainable, especially when the spending ability of the average Mainer is not rising at the same rate. Cities and towns may have avoided budget Armageddon this year, but officials should consider themselves on notice to make adjustments soon, before the public’s inability to stomach spending increases matches the governor’s.

– Ben Bradgon, managing editor

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