Too soon

LePage’s first biennial budget
By AL DIAMON  |  February 23, 2011

That's it?

That's the budget that was supposed to transform Maine into — depending on your political orientation — either a business-friendly, job-creating, profit-making paradise of free-market capitalism — or an environmental wasteland in which impoverished workers seek shelter while being urinated on by corporate swine?

In truth, Republican Governor Paul LePage's first biennial (a fancy word meaning both occurring every two years and going on a two-year fast) budget is a long way from those descriptions. It's so distant from the hopes of his most ardent right-wing supporters and the fears of his most voracious left-wing critics that any fair-minded observer would have no alternative but to call it that adjective most reviled by all extremists: Moderate.

Sure, state employees and retired public workers will take a little hit. A few immigrants won't get welfare, while legal residents may not get as much, and some poor folks will discover there's a definite end date to their time on the dole. The State Planning Office may gradually disappear. There aren't any bond issues for public land or fixing roads, or research and development. And the tax cuts LePage talked about throughout his gubernatorial campaign turned out to be modest, less than a fifth of the billion dollars he promised.

Which brings to mind another term despised by arch-conservatives and ultra-liberals: Realistic.

LePage — who claimed in speeches that his spending plan wasn't going to be "business as usual;" who warned in an interview with the MaineToday Media newspapers that it would be "difficult" and "painful;" who claimed in his budget address that if the state was a private business, it would be bankrupt — has produced a document that will have a barely noticeable impact on most Maine households (the governor's income-tax cut will save the average worker about three bucks a week, and I doubt that worker will miss the State Planning Office much).

LePage had originally promised to employ "zero-based budgeting," a fancy name for a process that says that just because a state agency got money last year, it isn't necessarily entitled to any this time around. But there was no time in the five weeks between his inauguration and the due date for the new fiscal plan to undertake such a dramatic and time-consuming approach.

LePage pledged Maine would have a smaller government, but, because of that looming budget deadline, there was little opportunity to sort out which programs should get the ax.

LePage insisted in a February 10 interview with the Morning Sentinel that, "after the next biennium, we will have a good foothold on solving the problems in the state of Maine." But the tight timeframe meant that all he could really accomplish in the short term was to keep the place operating much as it always had.

At least 90 percent of this proposal looks like it could have been drafted by (gasp) Democrats.

Obviously, it's unreasonable to expect a brand-new governor, particularly one inexperienced in the complicated budget process, to come up with a polished product that makes major policy changes on such short notice. But that's what state law requires. And as with many such requirements, there's a word to describe that: Stupid.

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