Maine’s government is shut down. It didn’t have to happen.
The failure to reach a budget agreement rests at the feet of 60 Republicans members of the House of Representatives, led by Reps. Ken Fredette and Ellie Espling, who were more intent on kowtowing to Gov. Paul LePage’s demands than serving the people who elected them.
It is up to them, and LePage, to resolve this crisis of their own making, not through ever-changing demands but through respectful debate and negotiations.
Failing to understand Maine’s system of government, Fredette said it was lawmakers responsibility to deliver a budget LePage could sign, as if they work for the governor, not the Maine people. LePage could sign any budget lawmakers put before him, he has made the choice not to. He has made it clear that he would only sign a budget that matched his ever-changing wish list. This is not governing or leadership, it is extortion.
Earlier this week, LePage said he wouldn’t sign a budget that was higher than $7 billion. The proposal he offered in the final hours of Friday night included $7.125 billion in state spending, which ironically is even more than what was included in the budget that the recalcitrant Republicans rejected.
LePage has demanded a review of tax-exempt property that is protected through conservation easements and changes to the state’s Tree Growth tax law. Unlike any other law change, the governor’s ideas haven’t been fully formulated or subject to public hearings and work sessions, where needed revisions could be made.
Late Friday, his list included a repeal of ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters in November. Lawmakers are at a stalemate over how to change the law after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued an advisory ruling that it violated the Maine Constitution.
Another last-minute addition was to end indexing of the minimum wage, a provision of another law passed by voters in November.
To suggest, as Fredette has, that lawmakers must just rollover and adopt such demands from the governor is a complete abdication of his responsibilities as a representative of the Maine people.
Other legislative leaders, especially House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau took their responsibilities seriously. They presided over weeks of negotiations that resulted in a two-year spending budget that was approved by a 34-1 vote in the Senate Friday. The same budget passed the House by a vote of 87-60, falling short of the two-thirds necessary to enact the budget immediately and to override a potential veto from LePage.
Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, was one of the nine Republicans to vote for the budget.
“Is it what everyone wants? No,” said Tuell on Friday. “We can scream and rant and rave and holler for the next two weeks, two months or two years and nobody is going to get everything they want.”
That is precisely the point. The budget that was passed Friday was far from perfect, but that is what happens when people with very different perspectives and priorities negotiate an agreement. There must be compromise, not ranting and raving, to bridge these differences.
One of the last sticking points was a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000, which was approved by voters in November as a means of increasing education spending to meet the state’s obligation to fund 55 percent of K-12 school costs.
Democratic leaders pledged to maintain the surtax, and the more than $300 million in additional education funding it was predicted to generate over the next two years. Republicans leaders sought to repeal the surtax.
In the end, Democrats capitulated on the 3 percent surtax, which was stripped from the final budget agreement, giving an income tax break to Maine’s top earners. They compromised on the $300 million in additional education funding, settling for about half as much by agreeing to a Senate Republican plan to generate additional revenue by raising the state’s lodging tax, which was a compromise from GOP members who generally oppose tax increases.
But, this was not enough for LePage and his minions in the House Republican caucus. So, they voted to shut down state government, turning a victory into defeat.
Lawmakers continue to meet this weekend amidst protests in the State House. A budget agreement is within reach, but only if the ultimatums and threats from LePage and House Republican leaders are replaced with a commitment to serve Maine people by compromising on a budget so state government can get back to business.