Gov. Janet Mills has now released her proposed budget to the Maine Legislature. Supporters hail it as a moderate, reasonable approach. Opponents describe profligate, unsustainable spending. So let’s do the math.
Eight percent, 52 percent, 65 percent and 133 percent.
Those numbers look backward 24 years from today when Gov. Angus King sat in the seat now occupied by Mills. They go back to a time when King introduced his first budget to the Maine Legislature, and the appropriations process began. Let’s look at them.
Fifty-two? That’s our income growth. The median Maine household earned just under $34,000 annually when King took office. The most recent numbers we have are for 2017, but the number was $51,664. Doesn’t look too bad, does it?
It doesn’t, until you see the national inflation rate has been 65 percent over the same period. So Mainers are going backwards. And what has driven those cost increases? They are led by medical care, energy, and shelter; college prices have more than tripled in the same period.
That brings us to 133 percent. It’s a big number. So what is it?
Well, when King’s first biennial budget was passed, government went to work. His administration spent $3.45 billion from the general fund, or $2,775 for every Mainer.
Mills’ proposed budget — before the Legislature gets a hold of it and adds its spending priorities — offers up approximately $8.05 billion. Just shy of $6,000 per person. In straight dollars, her budget is a 133 percent increase from the actual outlay of tax dollars compared to King.
When you start adjusting for inflation and population growth, the story gets a little less bad. Allocating $4,579 per Mainer would have kept us on an even keel with King. Multiplied by Maine’s population today, you get a little less than $6.2 billion.
You can do the same analysis with the Highway Fund, the money we put into roads, bridges, railways, and other transportation infrastructure. Skip the math: the proposed budget for that fund has increased only 43 percent from the spending in 1996 and 1997. Less than household income growth, less than inflation.
There is no particular magic in using King’s spending as a starting point. Maybe he and the then-Legislature got Maine’s needs wrong, or those needs have changed over time. But looking back over 24 years incorporates an independent administration, a Democratic one, and a Republican executive branch, hopefully smoothing out the vagaries of politics. Plus, our median household income in 1995 was almost the same as the national average.
So what does it all mean? Mainers are losing ground to inflation and our fellow Americans, while spending more public money than ever. Investment in the service side of government has skyrocketed and infrastructure appears less and less of a priority.
As the nitty-gritty of enacting a budget moves to the Legislature, it might be worth taking a step back. Increased government spending has not made Mainers more prosperous. A little more fiscal restraint, coupled with considered consideration of our physical infrastructure needs, may be just what our economy ordered.
Then, redoubled efforts on medical care and education — improving quality, controlling costs — would give Mainers the opportunity to stretch their dollars even further.
After all, it’s just math.