Rewriting history and contracts

Posted March 02, 2011, at 5:47 p.m.

Over the weekend, Gov. Paul LePage attended the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C.

The meetings are important opportunities for governors to connect with their colleagues from around the country and to step outside the vacuum of their own states and see a larger perspective.

But the meeting also includes real risks. Emboldened by sharp rhetoric and the national spotlight, there’s a chance to step all over what’s happening back at home.

And that’s what happened to Gov. LePage, who on Saturday gave an interview to Politico, an online political news site.

LePage weighed in on the political unrest in Wisconsin, where fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker has declared war on public sector unions and union supporters have responded with massive protests.

“He’s got a big challenge, and quite frankly, once they start reading our budget, they’re going to leave Wisconsin and come to Maine, because we’re going after right to work,” LePage told Politico.

There is no question in my mind that Gov. LePage intends to support so-called right to work legislation and that his overall goal is to weaken unions and punish their members.

But the anti-union right to work change is not in his budget.

It is a big document. Maybe the governor thought right to work language was in there.

There are plenty of things in there to hurt state workers and teachers, but that nugget isn’t there.

The budget does, however, include some language that seeks to change what is and isn’t a contract.

In Part X of the budget, the governor proposes to repeal the provisions of state law that made solemn contractual commitments to members of the State Employee and Teacher Retirement System related to health insurance and retirement benefits.

Current Maine law recognizes certain pension rules for state workers and teachers as a solemn contractual agreement. And Maine’s Constitution, like most state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution, offers tremendous protections for contracts and limits the ability of the Legislature to change the obligations of a contract.

While the original inclusion solemn contract language was certainly a political gift to unions, that doesn’t change the fact that it created a contract, which the Constitution says must be honored.

The language in the budget seeks to rewrite that history, and I suspect Gov. LePage hopes it will allow his administration to skirt constitutional restrictions when it comes to unions.

It seems like a strange position for a politician who won the support of tea partiers and folks who describe themselves as constitutionalists. I suppose some parts of the Constitution are more sacred than others, particularly when they apply to unions.

Public hearings begin this week on Gov. LePage’s proposed two-year budget, and already numerous protests are planned.

Last weekend, an estimated 500 people turned out in Augusta to show their solidarity with Wisconsin and to let it be known that they are willing to actively oppose a budget that is balanced on the backs of retired state workers and teachers, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

Gov. LePage’s budget would cut taxes, with the biggest benefits going to the wealthiest people in the state, while reducing health insurance coverage for working families, reducing prescription medicine support for the elderly and disabled, and making retirement for teachers and state workers less secure.

Maine’s budget has structural problems, and the pension system that we as a state have promised public sector workers and teachers needs to be adjusted.

But Gov. LePage has chosen a path of conflict with a budget that at times looks vindictive and downright mean. It seems intent on punishing people, when compromise and working toward common ground would produce better results.

Maine has seen its share of budget protests in the past. During my time in the governor’s office, we were often the subject of protests from the left and the right as we reduced state spending every year since 2008.

Even during those difficult times, we alwayswere working toward a bipartisan, pragmatic budget solution. With revenues improving and a willingness to compromise, Maine’s budget can be balanced in a way that puts the state on firmer financial ground without putting at risk our economic recovery, our elderly, our frail and poor, and our retirees and teachers.

But it will take the political will to move closer to the middle and not govern from the extremes. The choice now is in the hands of the Legislature and the capable members of the Appropriations Committee. We all should wish them success.

David Farmer is former deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci. A longtime journalist, he has been an editor and reporter in Maine, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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