Reflections of a Freshman: State Representative Amy Arata

As a freshman legislator, I’m often asked how it’s going in Augusta, usually with a rueful smile. I am a Republican and in the minority, but have found my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to be both respectful and congenial, with any disagreements aired with civility. However, a greater challenge has been dealing with those outside the legislature who are eager to attack without knowing all the facts. I’ve been accused of wanting to throw teachers in jail or ban common classroom books by people who didn’t bother to read the bill for themselves. A disabled Representative was disparaged on social media for parking in a handicapped space. Another had biohazards sent to his home after he was mis-quoted concerning feminine product availability to prisoners. These experiences have enforced my belief that we should be slow to anger and quick to listen.

As a member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, most of my time is spent working on the budget.  The governor has presented an $8.04 billion biennial budget. This is an 11% increase over the previous budget. Proposed increases include $146.7 million for Medicaid expansion, $171.7 million for education, and an additional $89 million for teacher and state employee retirement. Total proposed spending on education is $3.5 billion and total Dept. of Health and Human Services spending is $2.7 billion. Also, revenue sharing for municipalities was expected to be $364.7 billion as required by law. However, in order to fund such a large budget, proposed revenue sharing was reduced to $205 million. The maximum budget is determined by a non-partisan revenue forecast. After reducing the amount of tax revenue that would go to towns, the income estimate is $7.9 billion. The budget gap would be funded by rolling over any surplus from the current fiscal year. 

There are several things about this budget that cause concern. The original proposed budget leaves a cushion of only one nickel for every $1,000 spent. It also uses one-time surplus funds to initiate new, ongoing expenses. There is also the danger that the budget for Medicaid expansion is too low. We don’t know how many people will sign up, and the federal matching dollars vary year-to-year based on national economic factors that are out of our control. Also, we are at a point in the economic cycle where we are due for a recession, yet the Rainy Day Fund only has enough money to get us by for about a year if we have a moderate recession.  In past recessions the state had to curtail payments to schools and other vital services and force state employees to take unpaid furlough days. It would be wise to prevent history from repeating itself.

I look forward to working with all members of the legislature and the governor to achieve a budget that makes sense and protects the most vulnerable Mainers. We recently passed a small supplemental budget almost unanimously, which proves that we can work together well.  There are many good intentions in the proposed budget, but it’s simply unsustainable in its present form.  We have diverse opinions about where the government’s obligations end and personal responsibility begins.  I am confident that with maturity and compromise, we can pass a budget that will meet Maine’s needs, and I am honored to have a role in this process.