DAFS Commissioner Ryan Low: The wisdom behind Maine’s state budgets

Article and photos by Ramona du Houx

February 11th, 2009 

Ryan Low became the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS) last September, just when the news headlines were dominated day after day by Wall Street’s worsening financial crisis. Throughout it all, he’s remained calm, cool and collected, while continually assessing Maine’s finances.

The work is relentless as the recession has taken hold. Low was in his office throughout most of the Thanksgiving break. “Over the holiday I was working on the budgets. We had some questions about Corrections, so Marty Magnusson (the commissioner) came in for a meeting; then I briefed the governor again.”

Work on “budgets” is a complex job, especially when there is a projected $838 million shortfall in the $6.3 billion two-year budget, and the 2009-2011 budget is due out on January 9, 2009. Revenue shortfalls are always hard to deal with, but Low knows the challenges, having worked on state budgets throughout the Baldacci administration. His work earned him the appointment to head up DAFS after Becky Wyke, whom he worked with closely.

“We have an extraordinary team here. We all understand what the state faces, 41 other states have shortfalls,” he said admitting, “This is, by far, the most challenging situation I’ve been through.” And that speaks volumes, for Ryan has twelve years of experience in state government.

Low was state budget officer, associate finance commissioner, director of financial and personnel services, and chief of staff in the House speaker’s office and House majority’s office. He also worked for a year as the House Democrats’ staffer on the state reapportionment commission. Prior to serving as DAFS commissioner, he was the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

“I’ve spent 12 years in state government, focusing on budgets and the legislative sessions. I’m familiar with all the individual components of what makes up a budget and have worked with the Legislature extensively,” he said with reassurance.

His experience has served the state well. When Governor Baldacci was first elected, he faced a $1.2 billion shortfall. From the start, ways to find savings had to be introduced, and Ryan has helped guide the state every step of the way.

“Close to six years ago we began to make government more effective by streamlining services, so we could free up resources to return to the taxpayer and invest in programs. At the same time, revenues have continued to decline for four years. After six years of cuts, there aren’t many places left to cut. We know that there are difficult choices that have to be made,” said Ryan. “Everything will be on the table for the biennial budget, we’ll be looking at cuts in state, municipal, and county governments, and using the Rainy Day Fund.”

Simply put, cuts are necessary because tax revenues have fallen and the cost of programs and services has risen, so the state is currently spending beyond its means.

“State budgets are a lot like household budgets. When you find you aren’t earning enough to cover your expenses, your priorities are reviewed. You make sure the big, necessary expenses are met, and you cut down on things that you don’t need,” said Low. “President-elect Obama has said that he will go line by line through the federal budget, cutting unnecessary programs. We’ve been going through budgets line by line for six years. Some programs will have to be cut.”

During the 123rd Legislature 290 school administration entities were downsized into 80. The governor, fueled with research from the Brookings Report on Maine, was able to consolidate Maine’s school administration systems, thus creating savings. Other consolidation efforts in different areas will be proposed to help meet budgets.

“It’s hard for people to see the positive results in the short term, of efforts already taken in the central school system and corrections system, but in the long term people will see that these consolidation efforts will make our schools and correctional institutions more efficient. We are currently looking at finding other areas where short-term efforts can produce long-term results that make government more efficient while continuing to provide the essential services that people need,” said Ryan.

Last year there were many voices that were heard in Augusta protesting cuts that were made to fill a budget shortfall. Low says they will most likely be back, but it is important that people understand the gravity of what the state is experiencing financially.

“Eighty percent of state government spending is in Human Services and education, which means that most services in state government are specialized. Revenues have continued to decline, while the costs of services have increased by 6.5 percent. There is no realistic way of balancing the budget without cutting into these services,” said Ryan. “I understand that there are programs where people fought hard to have them implemented. They lobbied, went to committees and appropriation meetings. It’s a lot of work, but these are challenging times.”

Some programs that may be cut were implemented in the 90’s, when the state had money to spend because of the economic climate brought on by the Clinton administration.

“Budget surpluses tend to go in ten- to fifteen-year cycles. I worked as chief of staff for two speakers of the House during the 90’s. That’s when we had years of two to three hundred million surpluses,” said Ryan. “It’s always easier to spend. There are no easy choices for the next biennial budget.”

Low takes having to cut programs seriously. He knows that he is dealing with the lives of people in Maine.

“There is no obvious place to start. Comparing our spending to other states doesn’t really work, when there might be a legitimate reason for a program in Maine that wouldn’t make sense in Massachusetts,” said Ryan. “What Maine needs may not be what our neighboring states need. Making cuts is difficult.”

Budgets are excruciatingly hard to work on when there aren’t many areas left to find savings, and creative thinking to resolve problems is often called for. Budgets are worked on extensively and discussed long before the Legislature sees the first copy.

“Most people think that work begins on the biennial budget when the Legislature convenes in January. The process starts long before that — in July. It’s a full-time effort,” said Low. “Most days begin with meeting with the governor in the morning, working on budgets and then meeting again with the governor at the end of the day. That’s when he signs off on an idea or not.”

As commissioner, Low represents the administration before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, as it reviews the proposed budget. Projected revenues are already $140 million less for 2009. The question is whether there is any relief in sight.

“A stimulus package would help,” said Low. “It would have been easier if the lame-duck Congress had managed to put together a package before the New Year. Constitutionally, we are mandated to have a balanced budget, and we will. If the next president signs a package on January 20, we could make changes to that proposed biennial budget once we find out what Maine’s benefit will be.”

Being DAFS commissioner must be one of the most stressful jobs in state government, but Ryan gives the impression that it is all in a day’s work. He explains what DAFS does with clarity and insight, displaying his tremendous grasp of the process and the challenges. With two young daughters and a devoted wife living in Winthrop he doesn’t get to see as much as he would like, why does he do it?

“I’m hoping that what we are doing will position Maine soundly for the next 40 years,” said Ryan. “I believe we are making long-term changes that will make positive differences in the lives of the people of Maine.”

It is clear Low is the right man for the job; the state is fortunate to have him focused on budgets that are critical for the stability of the state and for future growth. What he has to achieve doesn’t receive much praise, but what he does is integral to the state’s well-being. With his guidance in restructuring Maine’s finances, the state will be in a better position to compete in the global economy.

In addition to working on budgets Low oversees nine bureaus and over 1,000 employees.