February 6

OUR OPINION: LePage speech offers platitudes, not leadership

Governor talks tough on spending, but ignores realities in cities and towns

Gov. Paul LePage wants to ask voters if they would like at least $100 million in tax relief, supported by an equal reduction in state spending.

He presented the initiative at Tuesday’s State of the State address as a way to keep more money in the pockets of Maine taxpayers while shrinking what he sees as bloated government.

Instead, it is another example of the governor talking tough on spending while shirking his responsibility to lead and ignoring the realities of what is going on in Maine’s cities and towns.

The measure appeals to LePage’s base, but doesn’t fully account for its consequences. The governor will have to work harder if he wants this plan to rise above campaign rhetoric.

Following the speech, Democrats likened the proposal to the TABOR tax-cap plans that failed at the polls twice in the last decade. There is, however, a much more recent comparison — LePage’s continued effort to completely eliminate state revenue sharing.

In his two-year budget proposal last year, the governor cut almost $200 million in local aid. That was on top of cuts required in recent years by state law.

He made those cuts without any direction on how municipalities should absorb them, except some vague suggestions about efficiency and consolidation. He said raising property taxes to fill the resulting budget gaps was a local decision.

LePage ignored the strain local budgets already were under. Services had been scaled back. Departments had merged. Cities and towns were working together. There was not much left to cut, and to maintain the services demanded by taxpayers, property tax increases were inevitable. Lawmakers recognized this, and worked to restore some of the revenue sharing.

Some leadership from LePage would be helpful. As a former mayor, he has insight into how the state and local budgets interact, and where municipalities could look for savings. But instead he is suggesting the state can cut more.

To get another $100 million in savings, revenue sharing likely would have to be reduced further, with predictable results.

Human services and education would take the bulk of the hit, however, as those categories account for about 80 percent of the state budget. LePage has been a little more open in how he would handle those reductions, citing welfare abuse and school administration as two areas where money is wasted.

It remains to be seen, however, how widespread welfare abuse is, and how the governor plans to fix it without harming the Mainers welfare is aimed at helping.

Some progress has been made on administrative spending at Maine schools, but it is unclear how much more savings is available without major structural changes. Those kinds of changes have failed before. To be successful, they require more than a governor who takes away money and says, “You figure it out.”

So far, that’s all that LePage has offered. If he is serious about cutting spending, he’ll be truthful about its real impact. If he is serious about reform, he’ll engage the people running local governments and schools.

The governor’s goal of a more efficient government is, on the surface, on target. But his plan right now is little more than a bumper sticker.

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