Republican radio address

For the weekend of January 9-10, 2010

Greetings, this is Josh Tardy, leader of the Republicans in the Maine House.

The Legislature convened this week after a six-month break, and the mood around the State House lacked the good cheer and excitement that usually marks the start of a new session. Over the next few months, legislators will debate and vote on some 250 bills dealing with a whole range of issues. But those routine duties are dwarfed by the monumental challenge before us – the requirement to cut the state budget by more than $430 million. As tax revenues continue to drop, the deficit continues to climb.

Obviously, something has to give; and Governor Baldacci has made it clear that it won’t be taxes. When he unveiled his supplemental budget last month, shock and awe swept through the sectors that depend on taxpayers’ money. The deepest cuts hit the two areas that combine to form 80 percent of state spending – education and health and human services.

This scenario is being repeated in state capitals across the nation, as the recession tamps down employment and consumer spending, the wellsprings of income taxes and sales taxes. If it’s any consolation, Maine is in better shape than many other states, where deficits range into the billions of dollars. California’s deficit is more than $20 billion and legislators out there see no way out. New York State is under water to the tune of $8 billion. The combined shortfall for all the states stands at nearly $200 billion.

Here, the governor and his team have given us a blueprint to solve our budget crisis, at least for now. He had no choice. Under state law, the budget must be in balance at the end of each fiscal year. The governor’s proposal isn’t the final word. As the budget moves though the Legislature, the pieces will undoubtedly be moved and rearranged. Sometime near the end of the session, maybe in early April, the Legislature will vote on the final package.

Republicans have made clear our views of the governor’s proposal. We’re glad he agrees with us that taxes are off the table. At a time when Maine residents are facing high unemployment and underemployment, when many families are experiencing profound economic anxiety, it would not be wise or fair to pile on a tax increase. Mainers shouldering the burden of the high cost of government are themselves struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. They cannot afford to pay for state benefits that are oftentimes better than what they earn themselves.

But we also have stated our concern that the governor’s plan would push many budget problems to the next governor and the next Legislature. It also will further burden municipalities with big reductions in school funding and revenue sharing. Combined, those two cuts total more than $120 million. As town managers scramble to fill those financial holes, they will have limited options – shrink municipal payrolls, reduce services or increase property taxes.

What worries Republicans the most about the governor’s plan, however, is the lack of structural changes that would provide lasting savings. This is a critical point, because the state is poised for a catastrophic fall off a financial cliff when the federal stimulus comes to an end next December. Without serious structural reform, the next budget could require truly appalling cuts in state spending or huge tax increases. The plain fact is that Maine’s state government has outgrown our ability to pay for it, particularly in this new era of austerity.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter what Republicans think about the budget proposal. The Democrats control both the House and the Senate and can do whatever they want. This is their show. Yet so far, they have been silent about the governor’s plan. None of the Legislature’s presiding officers has issued a statement or press release about it. This has been a source of frustration to the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee, which will handle the heavy lifting as we settle into solving this mess. It would be helpful if the majority party put their cards on the table, because this is no time for political gamesmanship. The stakes are far too high.

Meanwhile, a former chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, Ben Dudley, has put together a coalition of more than 120 organizations, primarily groups that stand to lose funding. Hundreds of people from those groups will jam the State House next week, as public hearings on the budget plan get under way.

We’re in for a wild session.

This is Josh Tardy. Thank you very much for listening.