Maine state government has a brand new two-year budget. But before anyone pops champagne corks in celebration, they may want to pause for a moment of sober reflection on the dangerous precedent we just set.
I’m not sure any of us fully understands the enormity of what just happened in Augusta.
Never before has a Maine budget been drafted and negotiated in secret by partisan leadership, with legislators and the public kept in the dark until just hours before the initial vote in the Maine House of Representatives. This lack of transparency is unprecedented and flies in the face of the letter and spirit of Maine’s freedom of access laws.
This is precisely the kind of D.C.-style politics that has earned the contempt of the American people. Washington is a place where secret back-room deals are the norm and where legislators cannot read bills before they vote on them. And now, this is how we do business at our State House.
Make no mistake: The budget process in the Appropriations committee was running smoothly, as members of the committee were moving toward a divided report that underscored a clear and unmistakable contrast between competing budget proposals.
The Democrats’ majority report was a bloated status quo budget that shortchanged and shoved aside Maine’s most vulnerable citizens in favor of noncitizen newcomers. The GOP minority report fixed our broken welfare system, fully funded the notorious Baldacci Medicaid waitlists and held the line on state spending.
What a great opportunity this would have been for a robust debate in the House, highlighting the stark contrast between Democratic and Republican priorities. So why did legislative leaders hijack the budget process and take all discussion behind closed doors and out of public view?
I can understand why Democratic leaders wanted a secret budget process; they knew if the public got wind of what the Democratic budget proposal looked like compared to the GOP plan, an overwhelming majority of voters would have preferred the GOP proposal.
But I still don’t understand why GOP leadership, in particular Senate President Mike Thibodeau, agreed to go behind closed doors with Speaker of the House Mark Eves, Democratic Senate leader Justin Alfond and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette to strike a deal that is a disaster for Maine people.
The “Gang of Four” budget increases state spending by a whopping $300 million, a 5 percent increase over the last biennial budget. It prioritizes teachers’ unions over nursing homes and methadone clinics over Medicaid waitlists. It is a corrupt “Christmas tree” festooned with ornaments for a few politically connected legislators whose bills failed to move forward during the regular legislative process but now magically have appeared in the final budget.
Our GOP negotiators secured a so-called “tax cut” as a fig leaf. But according to Maine Revenue Services, nearly 188,000, or 17 percent, of Maine households will see a net tax increase. Most of these households — about 75,000 of them — earn an income between $26,000 and $92,000. These are hardworking, middle-class families, many of whom already are struggling under Maine’s high tax burden.
Additionally, tens of thousands of Mainers will pay more state income taxes, thanks to a provision tucked into the agreement that caps itemized deductions on charitable contributions.
These huge changes to the tax code should have been thoroughly vetted in public hearings, instead of horse-traded behind closed doors and then dumped on legislators a couple hours before the vote, buried in a 700-page budget document.
Contrary to the spin we heard when a bare outline of this package was unveiled the night before the initial vote on June 16, there is no welfare reform in this budget. Quite the opposite, it strips out work requirements in current law, makes it easier for TANF recipients to stay on the program longer without working and provides $4 million in welfare benefits for noncitizens.
Since the session began, Democrats have behaved as though Mike Michaud had been elected governor.
But Maine voters spoke loud and clear at the polls last November. They re-elected Paul LePage with more votes than any governor in Maine history and sent an unmistakable message to all lawmakers that they want our broken welfare system fixed and our most vulnerable citizens protected. Sadly, this budget accomplishes neither.
Maine people are tough and resilient, and we will survive in the short term. But will our state ever be the same again if we allow a select few career politicians to conduct our most important business behind closed doors and without public hearings?
This isn’t Washington, D.C.; this is Maine. Or is it anymore?
Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, is serving his second term in the Maine House of Representatives (District 137) and serves as the ranking Republican on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development committee. He may be reached at email@example.com.