It had been one of those typically long days in Augusta, a day that had run long into the evening. Patiently, I waited my turn before the Appropriations Committee. At the time, I was the House chair of the fish and wildlife committee and was carrying forward my committee’s unanimous recommendation to supplement the Maine Warden Service’s budget with $250,000 to aid with search and rescue efforts across the state.
When I got to the microphone, the questioning was intense, probing and detailed. Despite a unanimous committee report to support my position, getting the attention of the rest of the Legislature was dependent on what happened right there, right then. After 45 minutes and a few nodding heads, the recommendation was included in the budget.
“At least for now,” the Senate chair cautioned.
In times of economic vigor or in very lean times, the process remains the same. The governor is charged with presenting a balanced budget, and the Legislature can make any number of changes that reflect public input. While it must remain balanced, the number of variations is truly endless.
When the state’s natural resource agency heads spoke at a recent press conference decrying the threat a proposed Medicaid expansion posed to the future of the outdoors, few noted how remarkable their assertions truly were.
Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that the prospect of Medicaid expansion and its possible threat to Maine’s outdoor heritage constitutes “the most important discussion that I’ve been a part of in my lifetime.” Sportsmen may be forgiven their surprise that Medicaid now trumps lack of winter cover for deer, the spruce budworm, a host of diseases, proposed policies restricting hunting activities, and the fragmentation of habitat and access as threats to our outdoor heritage.
The zero-sum game being played here puts forth the premise that the only priorities of any legitimacy to be those of the governor. The Legislature need not bother itself negotiating, because he has it all figured out. According to him, either the Legislature funds natural resource conservation and other state priorities, or it funds the future state share of the expansion of Medicaid and education, but it can’t do them all.
A little history is helpful here. If inquisitive citizens walk through the legislative law library and pick a year — any year — they will get a good idea of how the Legislature works together to address problems and priorities, such as I describe in my experience above. In 1947, for example, the state’s priorities might look a bit familiar to those knowledgeable of the budget-writing process.
Eighty percent of state spending went directly to institutions that worked in health, welfare, education and — this is the state controller’s word — “charity.” Those are numbers not dissimilar to the modern era. But the source of those funds has changed dramatically. In 1947, we had no state sales or income tax. Then, we relied on nearly half of state revenue from two sources — the state property tax and the tax on liquor.
The landscape shifted quickly, but legislators responded just as fast. The sales tax, enacted in 1951 and designed at least in part to replace the state property tax, was the result of a bipartisan committee report from a Republican-dominated legislature.
During the Senate debate on the measure, Sen. James Reid, R-Hallowell, Senate chair of Appropriations and an ardent opponent of increased taxes, nonetheless supported the sales tax measure. He stated, at length, both that he opposed the new sales tax proposal but that he also understood the need for the revenue, despite his and his constituents’ opposition to the new tax.
“(I)n case there is any doubt as to whether I am afraid of any measure, that one of the things that, politically speaking, is the worst thing we could do is to cut down on the public assistance program. … I will vote for the provision in the spirit of harmony and to keep the thing alive.” So he supported it — at least for the moment, much like the Senate chair I worked with more than 50 years later.
In politics, we run on what we believe in. We bring those beliefs to the negotiating table and endeavor to see that our values and the concerns of our neighbors are factored into the crafting of policy. The Legislature does that very well — a model that should be more closely followed by our national government, but that’s a topic for a later day. In the meantime, the chief executive should, we hope, bring forward his own beliefs and give all of us hope with what’s possible, not continuing to divide us up into groups of those who support his vision and those who do not.
The flat statement that an expansion of Medicaid — or any program — will bankrupt the Legislature of the ability to set priorities is intellectually dishonest. If the legislative process were that simple, ironically, we would not have use for a legislature; all such questions would simply answer themselves.
But should there be any doubt in the matter, I can assure the citizens of Maine that the proposed Medicaid expansion does not appear to have any impact on the services offered by the Department of the Secretary of State — especially elections.
Matt Dunlap of Old Town is Maine’s secretary of state.