One of the most talked about aspects of Gov. Janet Mills’ State of the State last week was the proposal to return half of the state’s expected budget surplus to Maine taxpayers in the form of $500 checks for most.
Some Republicans criticized the governor for usurping the idea. Former Gov. Paul LePage, who is now running against Mills, called the governor’s plan a gimmick. This is odd criticism since Mills gave Republican legislative leaders full credit for the idea, which may be a hard sell among the more progressive members of the Democratic caucus.
We understand the political popularity of returning money to taxpayers. But the idea of a budget surplus is somewhat illusory. The state is projected to take in $822 million in revenue through mid-2023 than was expected when the governor and lawmakers put together a spending plan last year. The state Constitution requires a balanced budget, so financial allocations and revenues must be the same. Hence, the governor’s proposals to divvy up this money, including putting additional funds in the state’s “rainy day” fund.
To be clear, this surplus comes from a budgetary projection, which could change, and the additional expected revenue is not ongoing, so it can’t responsibly be dedicated to ongoing expenses or programs, such as a permanent lowering of the income tax.
That said, it’s hard to claim the state has extra money when it has so many needs that remain unfunded. Government, of course, shouldn’t be responsible for meeting everyone’s needs and government can’t solve every problem, but a strong case can be made that it should do more to help address longstanding needs.