AUGUSTA, Maine — The federal government’s dysfunction, exemplified by $85.4 billion in automatic federal budget cuts set to take effect Friday because Congress and President Barack Obama can’t agree on budget priorities, ripples through the Maine State House.
It’s not just the impact the federal cuts would have on the state. It’s more a matter of style. Maine’s political leaders insist they don’t want state government to plunge to Washington’s level. An occasional curse uttered in anger or frustration is OK under the dome in Augusta, but “Washington-style politics” isn’t.
Gov. Paul LePage regularly expresses frustration with the ways federal policies thwart his efforts to run state government in what he believes would be a more businesslike manner. He also seizes every opportunity to remind Mainers that the state’s constitution requires a balanced budget, unlike what’s allowed to happen in Washington.
Democrats, who won back majorities in the Maine House and Senate in November, also have expended significant energy distancing themselves from Capitol Hill shenanigans. In recent weeks, the party’s legislative leaders have rarely let pass an opportunity to differentiate their approach to governance from “Washington-style politics.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, used the term Feb. 6 in criticizing LePage’s plan to use revenues from renegotiating the state’s liquor contract to fund a bond to repay state debt to hospitals and other bonds already approved by voters.
“This is really reminiscent of Washington-style politics where you don’t get a good result when you put things together that have nothing to do with one another,” Eves said at the time.
House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, used the term Friday to chastise House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, for mentioning the possibility of a state government shutdown if LePage and legislators fail to agree on a biennial budget before July 1.
“We should be looking forward to the same kind of collaboration in good faith in the next round, not engaging in that kind of Washington-style politics,” Berry said.
Democrats in the Legislature don’t simply summon images of federal government’s failings while talking about things they don’t like. While touting bipartisanship that resulted in easy legislative passage of a $153 million supplemental budget Thursday, Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, chairwoman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said, “The partisan gridlock of Washington is not our style in Maine.”
Hill went on to say that lawmakers “heard loud and clear from the people of Maine that they want us to work together to get things done.”
However, amped-up political jockeying just since Thursday indicates that doing so will be much more difficult as the focus shifts from the $153 million supplemental budget, which LePage said Friday he would allow to take effect without his signature, to the $6.3 billion biennial budget, paying the state’s debt to hospitals and renegotiating the state’s liquor contract.
On Thursday, the same day that a majority of Republican legislators joined Democrats in passing the supplemental budget, House Republicans issued a statement that harshly criticized a liquor sales bill introduced that day by Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond. They also blistered the Legislature’s Democratic leaders for failing to schedule a hearing on LePage’s proposal, LD 239. A hearing has been scheduled for March 11.
The Maine Republican Party joined the fray Friday morning with a release that lambasted Democrats for delaying action on LePage’s proposal, comparing it derisively to emergency legislation proposed by Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, to allow Mainers to drink alcohol earlier on a Sunday when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday, as is the case this year.
Then Fredette mentioned the possibility of a state government shutdown during a television appearance early Friday afternoon, spurring the Maine Democratic Party to seize the offensive Friday afternoon. Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant summoned dark images of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whom Democrats often portray as a villainous architect of D.C. gridlock, in taking Fredette to task.
“What we don’t need in Maine is John Boehner-style negotiating tactics,” Grant said in a statement.
“[The House Speaker] has been saying this isn’t helpful,” Jodi Quintero, a spokeswoman for Eves, said Monday. “Shutting down state government has a real impact on people’s lives, our economy and our bond rating. The term ‘shutdown’ is nuclear, and we certainly shouldn’t be using it before we even hold a public hearing.”
The Maine Republican Party renewed its offensive Sunday, attacking Democrats for their stance on the hospital debt while unveiling Maine GOP Research on the Tumblr social network, and following up with a release Monday in which Chairman Rich Cebra ripped Goodall’s bill and asserted that “Republicans will make sure Democrats are held accountable for their actions at the ballot box in 2014.”
House Republicans chimed in Monday with a release that described Goodall’s bill as “irresponsible” and compared allowing the Legislature to decide how liquor contract revenues should be spent to “giving the keys to the Corvette to your teenage son.”
Meanwhile, the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal advocacy group, bunkered down on the left with releases touting its campaign to have municipalities pass resolutions opposing LePage’s biennial budget, which would cut municipal revenue sharing, and announcing the release Tuesday of a report designed to show a widening gap between Maine workers and jobs that pay livable wages.
“The report comes as the Legislature is beginning work on two-year budget proposal from the governor that includes tax shifts and program cuts that could add to the financial problems of already-burdened low- and middle-income working families,” the MPA release states.
Later Monday, the House Republicans issued another release that labeled LD 361, a proposal by Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, to offer tax credits for plug-in electric cars “a tax break for the rich.” Fredette called Gratwick’s idea “market-distorting handouts to the green energy industry that benefit only those who need the money least.”
Both Fredette and Eves on Monday emphasized the need to work through partisan differences. But with advocacy groups and political parties firing off increasingly incendiary daily barbs about tax fairness, government shutdowns and holding lawmakers accountable at the ballot box, if you close your eyes and forget the snow, you might think you were in Washington.