DAVID FARMER

Stress as Republicans play beat the clock

Posted April 04, 2012, at 4:14 p.m.

There’s a fevered pitch to the activity in the Legislature right now — almost desperation — as Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican majorities in the House and Senate try to jam through a number of highly controversial proposals before the legislative session ends and the fall campaign begins.

As it gets closer to time for lawmakers to go home — especially in an election year — the action gets fast and furious. And the casual observer of Augusta’s many ups and downs can be excused for losing track as all the activity blurs together.

After a while, the budget shortfalls, mistakes and excuses all start to sound alike.

Unfortunately, it’s during this time of year when major changes in state law often get enacted without public scrutiny, public input and with very little public discussion.

While there are usually late bills, this year seems different, more rushed than normal.

Unsure of the prospects for maintaining control of the Legislature, Gov. LePage seems to be trying to fill the boxes on a legislative check list, even if some of the ideas he’s presenting aren’t ready for prime time. He’s pushing hard because he might not get another chance.

And legislators, many of them overwhelmed, aren’t paying close enough attention to the details of proposals that could have long-lasting consequences for the state.

We saw this last year when Republicans forced through a major rewrite of the state’s health insurance regulations. The bill has required numerous fixes and has failed to live up to its billing. Instead of lower costs, it’s actually driven premiums up for many small businesses and families, particularly in rural areas of Maine.

In what is scheduled to be the last days of the legislative session, lawmakers are still dealing with two major budget rewrites. One proposes massive cost shifts onto property taxpayers, major program changes and tax cuts that aren’t paid for, while the other is stalled because the Department of Health and Human Services still hasn’t been able to identify the depth and breadth of a major computer foul-up that has cast doubt on a budget that cruelly eliminated 14,000 from health care coverage.

Other hot button issues still waiting for resolution include legislation that would undermine collective bargaining for public sector unions, a rewrite of the regulations around unemployment insurance that would punish people who lose their jobs unnecessarily, new loopholes in Maine’s public access laws, major changes in public education and a Franken-TABOR bill that will set state revenue on a fiscal death spiral, creating permanent and lasting structural shortfalls.

It’s nearly impossible to do intellectual justice to everything that remains at stake in the Legislature. And that’s a real problem.

Meanwhile, the basics of running government aren’t getting done.

The LePage administration on Tuesday revealed another major mistake that underestimated state revenue by millions of dollars.

While important government services are on the chopping block, state revenue has been artificially underestimated. In this case, the mistake may actually be a blessing and provide beleaguered Appropriations Commitee members the breathing room they need to reach agreement on balancing the state budget.

Even though the pressure on lawmakers to act — and act fast — continues to build, the Republican alliance between the governor and the Legislature has started to show some cracks.

Late last week, Gov. LePage unleashed a blistering attack on the Republican-led Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Despite dealing with some of the toughest policy areas in the state, the Energy Committee has a history of working in bipartisan way to craft policy for the state. This year, the governor handed them bad policy that would have undermined locally produced power while benefiting a massive, foreign-owned energy company.

The policy experts on the committee changed the governor’s approach, making it far more reasonable — and more likely to be successful. For their efforts, they were broadsided.

Additionally, the governor suffered his first veto override. He vetoed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have created a working group to work on MaineCare funding for schools. It was not controversial and passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

This time — the first time in 17 vetoes — the Legislature stood up.

With elections looming, Republicans may feel that they need a little space from the governor to be re-elected. Meanwhile, with his control of the Legislature in jeopardy, Gov. LePage appears to be going for broke.

The danger is that the dysfunction will leave Maine to overcome bad policy rushed through at the last minute.

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. His clients include Engage Maine. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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