Turning the constitution into an earmark

By David Farmer,
Posted June 22, 2011, at 1:15 p.m.

The Legislature is on the verge of sending to voters a constitutional amendment. But it’s not too late to stop it.

This amendment won’t define marriage, won’t put in place spending caps. It won’t guarantee civil rights or protect minorities from discrimination. It won’t limit government or enhance voting rights.

It’s none of the things we talk about when we think about the Constitution.

Instead, it’s a sad attempt to avoid tough decisions.

It’s government spending without accountability.

It’s placing more than $10 million a year on the state credit card without any effort to pay for it.

It’s an earmark, a dodge, a dream.

By two-thirds majorities — the votes necessary to send a constitutional amendment to voters — the Legislature so far has supported LD 563.

This troubling amendment would dedicate 1.2 percent of sales and use tax revenues to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Marine Resources.

That amounts to more than $10 million a year, split with 90 percent going to DIF&W and 10 percent to DMR.

Supporters of the bill talk about Maine’s natural resources and outdoor heritage, about a reinvigorated deer herd Down East, about moose biologists and brave game wardens and marine patrol officers.

They paint a dream where voters — and members of the Legislature, who should know better — can project anything they like onto how this windfall will be spent.

With no real spending plan, supporters can imagine it being used the way they see fit.

Plus they have a phalanx of lobbyists whispering in their ear to vote “yes.”

Meanwhile, they don’t have to make the tough decisions that go along with a $10 million earmark.

This amendment, if it’s added to the constitution, means that there would be less money for other priorities.

Eighty percent of Maine’s General Fund is dedicated to education and health and human services. Take money out of the mix and it hurts K-12 education, the University of Maine, the community colleges, safe child care, health insurance for the poor, medicine for the elderly, services for the disabled or other areas of the state budget.

Those resources won’t be available to save a troubled mill or a critical railroad. To respond to a disaster or to make important investments in roads, bridges or invest in innovation.

There was a huge fight over $2 million annually for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. With just a fraction of the attention, the Legislature is trying to spend five times that amount.

The work done by DIF&W and DMR is important. Some of the finest people I know work in those departments, doing dangerous and thankless jobs.

But the same thing is true of the State Police, Maine Emergency Management Agency, Center for Disease Control, Child Protective Services, forest rangers and a host of other state agencies and personnel.

Over the years, they have all been asked to do more with less as spending was cut every year from 2008 until Gov. Paul LePage started spending new dollars earlier this year.

The normal appropriations process can be cumbersome, and it is full of trade-offs and hard choices. Under most circumstances, it requires two-thirds support in the Legislature and must pass muster with the governor.

It’s built upon compromise and consensus.

This year, the budget won overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate, despite being one of the most difficult balancing acts in recent memory.

If the support for $10 million additional dollars a year for DIF&W and DMR was real, the budget could have been written to reflect that consensus.

But the consensus on this spending exists only in a fantasy world, where the money flows effortlessly in and there are no consequences for the new spending, no cuts elsewhere made necessary by the decision.

The Legislature is selling us a dream — of rugged fisherman, brave wardens, healthy deer herds, of a return to tradition.

But when we wake up, sometime after July 1, 2013, and the bill comes due, we’ll find our hands tied and one less option on the table.

And for the members of the Legislature who are still around, that easy vote won’t look so good.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/06/22/opinion/turning-the-constitution-into-an-earmark/ printed on August 30, 2014