No balance to LePage’s budget

Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget plan isn’t real.

It’s as if he ran out of time on a homework assignment, blew up the font size but still came up short. Left with no option, he just filled in the blanks with whatever bad ideas he could find.

On paper, the budget seems to put forward equal revenue with spending.

But in reality, the budget is a work of fiction. There’s no reason to believe the budget is anything more than a political document meant to pick a fight with new Democratic majorities in the State House of Representatives and Senate.

Either that, or the LePage administration is so bankrupt of real ideas that it put forward this budget out of desperation and in the hopes it will buy enough time to come up with something better.

I do not believe the governor could even get a majority of Republicans to vote for this budget.

Here’s why: The budget is devastating to towns and cities in the state and would result in a massive shift of taxes onto the backs of property taxpayers.

The governor claims that his budget flat funds K-12 education. It’s just not credible.

The largest expense for local governments is education. The governor eliminates $200 million in revenue sharing that helps support local governments. Plus, he’s shifting retiree costs onto local taxpayers and away from the state.

In the past, revenue sharing has been trimmed as the state has required municipalities to help share the burden of a staggering economy. But total elimination of the funding is unprecedented.

Towns and cities simply cannot absorb such a large cut without disastrous effects.

Property taxes in Maine are already out of whack. They are too high, especially in service-center communities, and, in many communities, particularly along the coast, they inappropriately equate property ownership with wealth.

Zeroing out revenue sharing isn’t realistic — economically or politically.

It’s a sure sign of desperation and of passing the buck.

The governor’s budget proposal is a hodge-podge of shifts, gimmicks and stale ideas.

He targets homeowners with the elimination of the Homestead Property Tax Exemption and massive reductions in the Circuit Breaker program, which helps low-income families stay in their homes.

Those two are straight increases in property taxes for thousands of families.

He goes after the poor, with caps on General Assistance and changes in the rules to gut this program of last resort for families who are facing homelessness.

The budget would eliminate the Drugs for the Elderly program, which helps seniors and people with disabilities to afford prescription medicine.

He plans to book $30 million of yet-to-be identified savings, pushing the actual hard decisions off until later in the year.

He demands that 100 state jobs be eliminated. There’s no explanation or explained wisdom to the number. It smacks of an arbitrary figure. He believes government is too big. He wants it to be smaller. But he doesn’t have any ideas on how to actually make it smaller. So, once again, he passes the tough work on to someone else and pushes it down the road.

The LePage budget raids the Maine Clean Elections Fund and MaineHousing to support the General Fund.

My personal favorite (a tactic I have supported on more than one occasion), he also includes a $70 million gimmick: One day borrowing between fiscal years.

But here’s the problem and the trap for both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.

There are so many problems with this budget that it’s difficult to fix.

The budget is built around impossible ideas, but the alternatives are tough to identify without the assistance of the administration. The $200 million cut to local towns and cities can’t stand, but it’s a huge hole to fill.

And the governor has shown himself completely unwilling to work cooperatively with the Legislature. His plan isn’t a budget. It’s a dare. He wants a fight, and he’s almost guaranteed to get one.

There are alternatives, which include changes in the tax code to make it fairer and to ensure that the middle class and working families don’t carry most of the burden.

The Legislature can improve anti-poverty programs, making them more effective while also reducing costs.

And it can find efficiencies in government without destroying its core functions.

What it can’t do – Republicans and Democrats alike – is support what the governor has tossed onto the table.