Editorial: The HOPE budget

Governor Janet Mills has unveiled her proposed two-year state budget, a spending package she designated the “HOPE Budget,” an acronym denoting its objectives: health, opportunity, prosperity and education.

But the hope doesn’t end there. The budget does not merely affirm hope, it requires it, particularly the hope for more funding.

Every year the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee wrestles with competing demands, increased expenditures and changes in the state’s economy and the revenues realized.

Mills’ budget stretches that paradigm by proposing to expand base teacher pay by 33 percent, increase municipal revenue sharing by 50 percent, expand opioid treatment and MaineCare, better fund public safety and education, as well as provide for infrastructure improvements.

The bottom line is a budget of $8 billion-plus. It is the largest in Maine’s history, up 11 percent over the previous budget.

The aspirations are worthy … very much so. An increase in teacher pay, in particular, is long overdue. Opioid intervention and health care coverage for the poor and working poor also are justifiable priorities.

But did Governor Mills really have to say “no new taxes”? It was the campaign promise heard around the world when George H.W. Bush uttered those words at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Those words helped him get elected and, by 1992, promise not kept, helped him not get re-elected.

The proposed budget sets aside $147 million over the next two years for MaineCare expansion. According to Mills’ budget address, “That $147 million will trigger around a billion additional federal dollars for Maine. It is the bargain of a century.”

If Maine’s government can find the new revenues required without new taxes, that would be a bargain. It would be the triumph of hope.

Mills said her administration “will work with the congressional delegation to identify every source of benefits to which the Maine people are entitled and make sure our people get their fair share” — from a federal treasury that is $22 trillion in debt.

Though her goals are good and worthy, they depend on increasing revenue and a strong income stream from the business community. If the economy, on a 10-year roll, takes a swoon, the HOPE budget will be on shaky ground and tax increases might become inevitable.

History demonstrates that once government expands, it rarely contracts. Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature likely will counter some of Mills’ proposals with restraint. Which is as it should be … just part of the annual budget process.

In the coming months, Mainers will be treated to the details and dialogue that attend the crafting of a balanced budget, one that is not thwarted by inadequate funding from federal sources, among others. For the administration and Legislature, there is much work ahead. Taxpayers and citizens hope for the best.

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