EDITORIALS

To reach a budget deal, Maine needs leadership from LePage, not a game of chicken

Posted June 27, 2017, at 2 p.m.
Last modified June 30, 2017, at 3:11 p.m.

We’re at a loss to understand why Gov. Paul LePage thinks a government shutdown is a good idea that will somehow save Maine from a dismal future.

With only five days left before Maine needs a budget in place, LePage has again abdicated his responsibility, lobbed more demands at lawmakers, insulted Democrats and left the state.

This is horrifying — and irresponsible — behavior from a chief executive.

Last week, LePage ordered lawmakers to pass a last-minute budget proposal from House Republicans. If they pass a different budget, he said he will take the full 10 days allowed by law to issue a veto, assuring a state government shutdown. The House Republican spending plan contains many provisions, such as a statewide contract for teachers and the elimination of General Assistance for noncitizens, that have already been debated and rejected by lawmakers, so it was never a serious proposal.

Now, the governor has other policy demands. On Tuesday, the governor said he also wanted a review of land that is not on the tax rolls, especially land that is conserved.

And, in typical LePage style, he threw in a threat. “I’m the worst guy in the world to play chicken with because I don’t veer either way,” he told WVOM Tuesday morning. “I go straight ahead. So if there’s a collision to be had, it’s coming Friday night.”

Negotiating a budget is not a game of chicken. It is not a battle to be won through collisions to see who remains standing. It requires veering.

A real governor would get legislative leaders in a room and work toward a compromise, not simply issue demands and threats. Instead, with a government shutdown looming, LePage is headed to Washington to talk with the Trump administration about energy policy.

Back home in the state he is supposed to lead, an agreement on a budget for the next two years is within reach.

The budget debate has come down to a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000. The surtax was approved by voters in November as of means to raise revenue so the state would cover 55 percent of K-12 public school costs.

Senate Republicans want to repeal the surtax and would get the additional education funding from a variety of sources, including surplus and stabilization funds, without tax increases. Democrats propose to pare the surtax to 1.75 percent on income over $300,000 a year. They would also increase the state’s sales tax and lodging tax.

These two proposals are only about $25 million apart in terms of how much money would be raised and devoted to education. Both include a tax break for Maine’s highest income earners, one of LePage’s highest priorities. This numerical gap and details of where the money would come from could be resolved if there were serious negotiations taking place.

But Senate President Mike Thibodeau and House Speaker Sara Gideon, despite their serious work on bridging the differences between their caucuses, can’t finalize a budget on their own. Because of the perilously late hour of the budget process and because of an expected veto from LePage, two-thirds of lawmakers are needed to pass a budget, and to override a veto if one is forthcoming.

This gives House Republicans, and LePage, outsized influence. They could have used that power wisely to negotiate, weeks ago, for provisions that were important to them — and that they knew could garner support from the other two caucuses. Instead, they are recycling old, rejected ideas and playing run out the clock.

Instead of working with lawmakers, the governor simply said: “I believe we’re going to shut down Friday night.” No remorse, no recognition that Maine people — not Democratic leaders — voted in the surtax. Just more demands that Democrats do what he says.

A shutdown won’t just hurt state workers, for whom LePage has shown great disdain. It will hurt business owners, medical professionals, farmers, unemployed Mainers, tourists — essentially anyone who has any contact with state government.

Instead of barreling toward a shutdown, it is past time for true leaders to put aside their wishlist and to compromise on a budget that keeps Maine open, for business, for all.

 

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