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Best of Portland 2009

What's wrong with Augusta?

Whatever it is, it isn't new. Things were just as screwed up a decade ago — in the opposite direction
By AL DIAMON  |  January 29, 2009


Charlie Colgan couldn't predict a recession if its arrival was signaled by warning lights and sirens.

It's tempting to conclude that all the Maine state government's problems are the direct result of a lack of cash. With the Legislature contending with an $850 million shortfall and a proposed budget that requires deep cuts, layoffs, and fee and tax increases, who could blame somebody who believed the solution to everything that's wrong in Augusta could be found just by turning on some secret money tap?

Me, that's who.

If there's anything the last decade should have taught us, it's that money — or the lack thereof — makes absolutely no difference in the way the governor, the Legislature, and the state bureaucracy do their jobs. In both good times and bad, they fuck things up.

Those fuck-ups go well beyond the recently discovered $22 million "accounting problem" in the state budget that nobody noticed for three years. Compared to the systemic clusterfucks of the early 21st century, that minor fiscal misfortune is chump change.

Don't believe that? Let me prove it. Return with me to 1999, a year that was almost the reverse image of our time. Employment was growing. Wages were up. And state coffers were overflowing.

Stupidity, nevertheless, ran rampant.

As it turns out, it's actually easier to be stupid when you're living large than it is when you're cooking stone soup.

If I were one of those thoughtful types — the kind who pontificate on National Public Radio or write op-eds for the New York Times — I'd probably conclude that the decisions made by our elected leaders 10 years ago led directly to the economic problems we're experiencing today. But I'm not.

I'm more the type to stand on a soapbox and scream "Bullshit!" So I'm afraid this analysis uses the occasion of the Portland Phoenix's 10th anniversary not to celebrate all we've learned and accomplished, but to scream epithets at those who would attempt to squeeze a bloody historical lesson out of a decade-old turnip.

Even the most superficial look at 1999 (and I promise mine will be laced with all the superficiality I can muster) shows we haven't learned diddly or accomplished squat since then.

We still think planning ahead means hoping for the best. We still think a worst-case scenario is one that can't happen. We still elect people who handle public money much like those in the oft-repeated and probably apocryphal story about a meeting of the Lewiston City Council sometime in the 1970s.

"We have a deficit," the mayor announced.

The senior member of the council stood up.

"Mr. Mayor," he said, "I move we spend it."

Nothin' but good times ahead
Nineteen-ninety-nine was a sweet time to be in Augusta. Money was coming into state coffers so fast, the economists couldn't keep up with it. Maine's economic experts predicted a $27 million surplus. Then, they recalculated and decided it would be more like $40 million. Or, later, $50 million. Or, still later, $80 million. Through the first six months of '99, the figure kept growing, and it still ended up too low when the fiscal year came to an end June 30.

Not only did the state close the books with an $85 million surplus, it had extra dough left over from the previous year. In all, there was more than a quarter-billion in uncommitted cash laying around.

What's even more remarkable is this windfall occurred in the wake of a tax cut. The previous year, revenues had grown by more than 10 percent. Under the provisions of a law passed in the early '90s, any increase over eight percent automatically triggered a one-half-percent decrease in the sales tax, from six to 5.5 percent. (That provision had been approved at a time when eight-percent growth in state revenues seemed inconceivable in an attempt to fool voters into believing the sales tax hike was temporary.)

When all the figures for '99 were totaled up, revenues had increased by nine percent, which meant the sales tax was in line for another automatic reduction, this time to five percent. Democratic Senate President Mark Lawrence (yeah, the same guy who ran for Congress last year, is now York County district attorney, and wants to be appointed US attorney) tried to convince legislators to block the cut, but hardly anybody else was interested in committing political suicide. So, Lawrence got the Legislature to delay the tax break from October 1, 1999, to July 1, 2000.

Independent Governor Angus King (yeah, the same guy who today is hawking floating off-shore wind turbines that he says will turn Maine into "the Saudi Arabia of wind") was pretending to be a fiscal conservative that year. King had already vetoed 22 bills, preventing about $4 million in new spending. But he didn't seem to have enough juice left to block the tax-cut delay.

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Related: How we operate, Hey guv: stop slashing!, Everyone’s a neocon now, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Angus King, Augusta, Business,  More more >
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