While it was nice that Gov. Janet Mills didn’t propose a whole host of new programs to use the budget surplus in her recent State of the State address, the governor’s spending outline wasn’t nearly as fiscally responsible as it might have been.

After all, it’s not as if Mills put aside all of the money from the surplus – she’s still spending more than a quarter of it. Setting aside the question of whether that new spending is warranted or worthwhile, if these were true spending priorities, they could have been passed by the Legislature and incorporated into the regular biennial budget. As was to be expected, liberals criticized her for setting any money aside. There’s no level of government spending that will ever satisfy them. They always want more.

The real problem with Mills’ supplemental budget isn’t necessarily the content, but the fact that elements of it weren’t enacted earlier. We’ve known for years that the state’s education system for students with disabilities was inadequate; that problem has been waiting to develop into a full-blown crisis. A replacement of the current system should have been considered long ago, and in a more thorough and considered manner, rather than being slipped into the supplemental budget.

Similarly, it’s been blatantly obvious for quite a while now that the state needed to completely revamp its child welfare program. Usually, problems with government services aren’t simply a matter of a lack of funding, but one of organization and culture, and it’s clear that child services in Maine needs a more innovative approach.

Unfortunately, on child services, Mills didn’t go far enough; that entire area of state government doesn’t just need a few more dollars but a complete restructuring, something the governor appears unwilling to consider. Hopefully, a future governor will be more open-minded and willing to consider a real solution.

We also didn’t need a horrific tragedy to make it clear that access to mental health care in Maine was sorely lacking. The idea of a regional network of urgent mental health centers is a good one, especially in a sprawling rural state like ours. Really, there ought to be at least one in every county, and preferably situated in areas that are underserved by other facilities. Over the past several decades, this country as a whole has neglected mental health. Rural areas are often hit hardest by this. The new investments in the opioid crisis, while certainly welcome, could similarly have been made before the supplemental budget was proposed; it’s an ongoing issue directly tied to mental health care.


Since all of these problems have been festering for a while, we shouldn’t have had to wait for a fortunate revenue report to find the spare change in the cushions to address them. The Legislature should have been proactively pursuing solutions, working hard to find the funds to address them before.

There’s always plenty of waste in the state budget, something governors in both parties have done a poor job of addressing of late. Even if it doesn’t lead to a reduction in overall spending, it would be better to cut ineffective programs to fund more effective ones. That’s what true fiscal responsibility looks like, not haphazardly throwing money around when it becomes available. Real fiscal responsibility is about a lot more than just not spending all the money, just like it’s about a lot more than cutting taxes. Real fiscal responsibility is about spending taxpayer money wisely and effectively.

While it’s good to see Mills recognizing the wisdom of setting funds aside for an emergency, it’s not particularly clear why she’s creating a new account. Even if the budget stabilization fund is at its statutory limit, the Legislature can always change that, whether permanently or temporarily, and that would have been the wiser approach here. Indeed, the limit on the budget stabilization fund should have been completely eliminated years ago; there’s no real reason for it. The state should be able to set aside enough money as it sees fit without restraint.

Mills isn’t going on the reckless spending spree that liberals yearn for. However, she’s still spending money on new programs and failing to deliver any taxpayer relief. Her supplemental budget could have been worse, but it’s hardly fiscally responsible. If it were, it would have been devoted to one-time expenses and tax relief, not funding ongoing new programs.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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