Thanks to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, a record number of Maine workers are now unemployed. Since 85 percent of the revenue that state government relies on for its General Fund comes from personal income tax and the resulting sales and use taxes, the loss of more than 100,000 jobs is creating an enormous drop in state revenues.

As a result, we are in a situation where the government we have is no longer the government we can afford, not for the time being at least. Estimates say that revenues to state coffers will fall short of paying for our expenses as much as $1 billion in the coming year, the Bangor Daily News has reported.

Many have argued that we should replace this lost state revenue by using most or all of the $1.2 billion that the federal government is sending to Maine to deal with “unexpected expenses” related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This is an untenable idea because it is a one-time-only payment from Washington, while the reality of lower revenue is likely to stay with us for some time. What will happen next year when we still have revenue shortfalls but no more federal cash?

Among the most important factors that many do not always consider is that Maine taxpayers are also federal taxpayers. Federal funds come from our own bank accounts right here at home. Asking the government that takes from one pocket to pay us cash so we can avoid having a different government take from the other pocket does not solve our problems.

Neither can we rely solely on our “Rainy Day” fund though we are in the midst of a tremendous fiscal storm. Back in 2018, the two groups that provide the research behind the state budget, the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission and the Revenue Forecasting Committee, reported that this fund should be at $646 million, 2½ times what it is today. The reality of the moment has proven those forecasts correct and demonstrated that we were unprepared.

What seems most in order as an answer to our budget crisis is the old-fashioned Maine approach of rolling up our sleeves and tightening our belts rather than looking to someone else to bail us out with our own money. We must craft a smaller state budget and accept a smaller state government.

Federal money intended for “unexpected expenses” should be used for that purpose, specifically for helping regular Mainers deal with the effects of the virus. It should not be used to help those of us in Augusta avoid making difficult choices.

For example, the Maine Department of Labor could – and should – have used a million dollars of these funds to hire Google to rebuild their phone and computer systems two months ago and prevent weeks of pain and suffering among those who waited for benefits. Now, they should use some of this money to add staff, technology and whatever else will improve their response time.

State government should also buy masks and other personal protective equipment for workers in Maine businesses in order to increase safety while allowing more of them to remain open and working. We should especially provide what hospitals need by way of equipment.

Like our constituents in their personal lives, those of us in the state Legislature need to prioritize our budget needs. We must ask the tough but necessary questions that lead to smaller, more sustainable spending.

For example, is funding this program or that project more important than providing virus testing that enables businesses to open safely? Those businesses not only put food on the table for their workers, but also generate income, which means they will resume paying taxes that will again provide revenue to state government for other programs.

This is just one of the many difficult choices we must examine, and we can. The people of Maine elected us to serve in times that are difficult as well as easy. For nine straight years we enjoyed large revenue surpluses. Now that things have turned toward the negative, they expect us to do the hard work and make the tough choices to create a budget that is within our means, even if our means are greatly and suddenly reduced.

The time has come for us to demonstrate strong leadership and stop looking for easy, temporary ways to avoid the challenge before us. We need to sit down and make the difficult, sometimes troubling decisions that are called for, and craft permanent solutions, not short-term fixes.

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