Serving on the Maine Legislature’s budget writing committee requires long work hours, an eye for detail and a lot of patience.
Throughout a legislative session we sat through hundreds of hours of public testimony, dozens of reports from department heads and many late nights debating each and every line in the state budget to reach the very best compromise possible. No one walked away with everything and no one walked away with nothing.
When Gov. LePage chose to use his line-item power to veto the general assistance portion of the budget recently, after a very strong bipartisan vote of support in both the House and Senate, I believed my colleagues on the other side of the aisle would come back to stand up for the process and product we all worked so hard for.
Instead, Republican lawmakers have gone back on their word and rubber stamped the governor’s ideological line-item veto through their failure to act to reconvene.
The veto is a “shift and shaft” to property taxpayers. The bipartisan agreement prevented an 8 million dollar budget shortfall in the state’s general assistance reimbursements to towns from being shifted to property taxpayers. It restored nearly $5 million to the governor’s cuts.
Now property taxpayers will have to foot the bill, especially here in Bangor. Our mayor recently said at a city council meeting that $1.1 million will be coming out of taxpayer’s pockets one way or another if the ruling from the governor wasn’t changed.
Towns and cities are legally obligated under both state and federal law to provide general assistance benefits to those who are eligible. Many municipalities are finalizing their budgets now with the fiscal year about to end and they cannot wait until mid-May for the Legislature to possibly do its work.
The veto will impact all 490 municipalities in Maine. The veto creates a hole of nearly $5 million that will mean the state won’t have enough money to reimburse any municipality under the current formula. In this recession, more of our neighbors have had to temporarily rely on general assistance just to stay warm or keep a roof over their heads. Cutting the reimbursement from the state won’t stop the need.
By not showing up to work to consider the veto when the procedures are prescribed, the Republicans have chosen to ignore the rules and forfeit their responsibility. This is especially troubling to me and gives me doubts as to whether I can trust my colleagues to stick with any other agreement we strike. Negotiations only work when both sides can take the other at their word.
Lawmakers will also be working on the Department of Health and Human Services budget in May and we must make sure the general assistance agreement we came to is included in that budget.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has passed five bond proposals to invest in improving our roads and bridges, creating research and development jobs and opportunities, improving our water and wastewater treatment and preserving the natural resources on which our economy depend. Will those agreements to create jobs in our state stand if Gov. LePage doesn’t like the proposals we came up with?
The committee voted out five separate proposals, breaking with the traditional process for crafting one single bipartisan bond package for the Legislature to consider sending to voters. Were they set up to give the governor a menu of options to reject? Were they set up to fail?
When the Republican controlled Legislature refused to reconvene so all of the elected members would be obligated to cast a vote either supporting or overriding the governor’s line item veto of the critical municipal general assistance, our trust was broken. Politics was put before the best interest of the people. Now that decision hangs over our other good-faith compromises in Augusta.
These sorts of actions are analogous to political maneuvering typically seen in Washington. Republicans and Democrats have a tradition of compromising that separates us from the political gridlock in the nation’s capital. Unfortunately, the people most hurt by all of the politics will be Maine families.
State Rep. Sara Stevens, D-Bangor, serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and is serving in her second term in office.