In January, Fitch Ratings, one of the nation’s three major credit ranking services, cited state government’s “increasingly contentious decision-making environment” as a contributing factor in downgrading its assessment of Maine’s fiscal health. Things have only gotten worse since then, as evidenced by another tempestuous week at the State House.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s accomplishments for the week include repositioning the television he uses to flash political messages, returning from a self-imposed State House exile, enforcing his ban on department heads speaking to legislative committees and suggesting that what he perceives to be a national effort by Democrats to “censor” conservatives like himself might spur those who feel stifled to “get our guns out.”
These actions do nothing to promote meaningful job creation, education reform, energy cost reductions and other elements of LePage’s agenda. Instead, they draw unwanted attention to a dysfunctional government, making Maine the butt of national jokes and derision just as summer visitors — upon whom the state’s tourism industry depends — begin arriving.
Of equal concern is the fact that the governor’s decision not to let department heads participate in public conversations with legislators during public hearings will shut everyday Mainers out of important budget-writing and lawmaking processes during the final weeks of this legislative session. Limiting administrators’ communications with legislators to phone, email or caucus visits impedes the public’s right to know how laws and budgets move from proposals to enactment. It also further politicizes the process of passing a $6.3 billion biennial budget at a time when open bipartisan collaboration matters most.
We’ve seen how LePage interacts with Democratic legislative leaders; it’s unhealthy and counterproductive. Having LePage serve as the administration’s sole public voice at this stage of the Appropriations Committee’s budget deliberations threatens to throw political obstacles in front of that delicate process a month before a new two-year budget must be in place.
Democrats are not exempt from contributing to an atmosphere that can inhibit policymaking, especially when tensions are high and the threat of a shutdown weighs on people’s minds. The last state government shutdown, in 1991, occurred when Democrats controlled the Legislature during a Republican governor’s tenure.
Wednesday’s call by Democratic legislative leaders for a delay in implementing income tax cuts that took effect in January, as presented, is a non-starter and comes late in the session. There’s no doubt leaders face a difficult task to build a budget that enough Republicans and Democrats can support to pass with two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers, which is required for July 1 enactment. But Democratic lawmakers need to gather consensus. Pushing back the $400 million in income tax cuts is an obvious solution to help fill the budget hole, but it tramples on the principles of too many Republican legislators to be considered a serious offer at compromise.
Maine’s elected officials need to demonstrate to residents they are focused on the tasks that must be completed to avoid a state government shutdown on July 1.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the Senate chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, who angered LePage by denying his request to address the committee after the governor showed up unannounced on May 19, set the right tone for accomplishing that feat when she said, “Some could see [LePage being asked questions in public] as an opportunity to embarrass him, but that’s not anything I want to be a part of. … We need to get the people’s work done.”