The state’s insatiable hunger to spend your money has no end

By Matthew Gagnon

For the last five years, the Maine state government has seemingly been on a mission to spend as much money as humanly possible. So expansive has this spending spree been, that one could be forgiven for not even being able to keep track of it all. 

One of the things you frequently hear from advocates of what I once called a “reckless orgy of spending” is that such spending is necessary, because government had previously been starved of cash by “years of budget cuts,” supposedly hollowing out the cupboard and creating a need of these poor neglected government agencies to be “replenished.” Gov. Janet Mills, the logic goes, needed to radically increase spending because former Gov. Paul LePage had been so mercilessly savage about starving the government.

The talking point sounds good, and has been useful to the politicians that make such claims, no doubt. But an honest assessment of the claim shows it to be patently dishonest. LePage did not cut government to the bone, as so many like to claim, but in reality increased state government appropriations, raising spending by $1 billion over the course of his two terms in office. 

But take LePage entirely out of the equation. Let’s look at the last two gubernatorial administrations that were widely criticized for spending recklessly, and see how they compare to what we have seen out of Mills and her allies since 2019. 

Gov. John Baldacci’s final biennial budget was passed in 2009. In the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years, Maine spent $5.73 billion from the general fund, which is about half of what it spends today. Back then, the Baldacci administration was routinely criticized by some for growing government spending unsustainably, particularly in places like the state workforce and DirigoHealth program.

Inflation has run up by roughly 34.5 percent since that time, meaning that same expenditure would be worth roughly $7.71 billion today. In other words, the Maine government now spends almost $3 billion more in 2024 dollars than it spent then.

Even if you were to choose a budget in the middle of Baldacci’s eight years, prior to the financial crisis, the story would be the same. If you looked at the biennial budget passed in 2005, for instance, you would see that the Maine government spent $5.8 billion in those two fiscal years. Adjusting for inflation (41.9 percent) we would still only be talking about $8.23 billion in state spending, more than $2 billion less than we spend today.

Baldacci’s predecessor, Angus King, whose governorship occurred during the expansive economy of the 1990s, had an even more well-earned reputation for spending extravagance. His tenure was filled with one gimmicky spending idea after another, fueled by then-record revenues driven by the national economic boom. The most famous of these initiatives was the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which provided laptops to students statewide. There was a widespread sense, even within some in the King administration itself, that in his second term the state had more money than it knew what to do with.

King’s final two years in office saw $5.12 billion of general fund spending, a number so bloated with needless and reckless spending that, as the dot-com bubble burst, it left Baldacci with a roughly $1 billion shortfall upon assuming office. 

Again, no one in their right mind would accuse King of having run a lean and efficient government that carefully controlled spending. Yet when accounting for the subsequent inflation, that original $5.12 billion would be worth “only” $7.89 billion today.

The point being, it is a particularly insidious fallacy to suggest that the explosive and unprecedented spending that we have seen under Mills is in any way responsible. Government was not underfunded during the administrations of King, Baldacci or LePage, and it is certainly not underfunded today. 

The reality is that the insatiable appetite of progressives, including the governor, has overwhelmed them, and they simply can’t stop themselves. This year alone, they have decided that record budget appropriations and surplus on top of surplus on top of surplus isn’t enough to feed their wish lists, so we have seen attempts to enact a “streaming tax,” the state’s “rainy day fund” is being raided to pay for storm damage, there has been an attempt made to raid the state’s transportation fund, and there has even been an attempt to add three new tax brackets and hike Maine’s top income tax rate to 8.45 percent. 

Translation: Whatever Augusta gets, even if it is $2 billion or $3 billion more (in today’s dollars) than prior “big spending” governors, it is never enough.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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