Dysfunction has become a buzzword when talking about government. Many people, lawmakers and their constituents alike, complain about government dysfunction. Others create dysfunction to reinforce the notion that government doesn’t work or to create a crisis they hope to resolve.
Many types of dysfunction were on display in the waning days of the legislative session last week.
But the system completely broke down when one-quarter of the Legislature, the House Republican caucus, led by Rep. Ken Fredette, refused to continue working. Whatever points they had about Democratic shenanigans or the needlessly slow pace of work in the State House were undermined when they simply refused to keep working, by voting against an extension of the legislative session.
This wasn’t a vote for good governance or responsible leadership. This was akin to a kid arguing about the rules of a pickup game and, after failing to convince his friends he was right, simply taking the ball and going home, even if the ball did not belong to him.
Simply walking away from their legislative duties leaves a legally required expansion of Medicaid undone. Tax conformity, a priority for Gov. Paul LePage, is also unfinished. Recreational use of marijuana is legal, but needed rules for sales and taxation remain in limbo. Bonds for transportation and the university system were left unaddressed, as were changes to the state’s proficiency-based diploma requirements and dozens of other issues.
Walking away did not stick it to Democrats or change the dreaded status quo; it simply left Maine people with unnecessary uncertainty and hassles.
Refusing to extend the legislative session didn’t decrease government dysfunction — it heightened it. This is not especially surprising, given that many Republicans lawmakers ran on the promise of shrinking or dramatically remaking government. The problem is that government does a lot of things — pave roads, temporarily assist those in need, protect public health, fund public schools — that are not profitable and, hence, not done by the private sector.
As the signs that said “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” seen at rallies and town hall meetings a decade ago, captured, many angry voters fail to understand what “the government” does. It is easy to hate government when you think all it does is take your tax dollars and give them to someone else. But, when taxes are decreased and government services shrunk, it doesn’t take long for the same critics to complain that they aren’t getting the services they are paying for.
Further, Republican outrage over the length of the legislative session is selective. The longest second session on record ended on May 31, 2012. Republicans controlled the Maine House and Senate that year. Fredette didn’t try to shut things down that year when legislative work extended well beyond the April 18 statutory deadline.
Last year, Fredette led the obstruction that resulted in a short government shutdown, making that session the longest first legislative session on record. In his eight years in the Legislature, Fredette, who is one of four Republican candidates for governor on the June 12 primary ballot, has not championed legislation or rule changes to improve or streamline operations in the State House.
And, last week’s breakdown was triggered when Fredette demanded a rollback of the state’s minimum wage, which was increased by voters in 2016, in exchange for an agreement to extend the legislative session. A bill to rollback the minimum wage had been considered by the Labor, Commerce, Research and Development Committee, including a public hearing and two work sessions. An amended Senate version of the bill would have slowed future wage increases to 50 cents a year, rather than $1. The House rejected changes to current law and the bill died.
This is how the legislative process works. It can be slow and convoluted. Demanding action that his colleagues had already considered and largely rejected is the epitome of dysfunction.
Mainers deserve better from their elected officials. In November every seat in the Legislature is up for grabs. Voters should choose candidates who will work with others to solve disagreements rather than walk away from their responsibilities.
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