Sad, indeed terrible, news from Augusta: Budget negotiations are stalled.
This budget will require two-thirds support from both chambers of the Legislature to be enacted, so any of the four caucuses has the ability to hold the entire state hostage. But only one caucus — House Republicans — is choosing that scorched-earth approach. Democrats in the House and Senate as well as Republicans in the Senate are negotiating in good faith, but Rep. Ken Fredette, the House Republican leader, is leading a group of House Republicans who have refused to compromise.
If the Legislature does not give the governor a budget shortly, the state government will shut down July 1. A shutdown would represent failure of our government. It benefits absolutely no one, and it will harm many.
Real people will suffer. It’s easy to dismiss a shutdown as affecting only state parks and state offices, but a shutdown also would delay state payments to hospitals, health centers, doctors, nursing homes and home health agencies. It adds unnecessary delays and barriers to families who are waiting to be approved for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and other benefits that keep them safe, healthy and warm. It stalls health and safety inspections of bridges and milk production.
The main sticking point in budget talks is not money. This year, Maine has a budget surplus, making cuts unnecessary. Instead, the issue is whether the Legislature will honor the results of last November’s election, particularly the results of Question 2, which won at the ballot box. The voters directed the state to institute a 3 percent surcharge on the very wealthiest Mainers, who have received numerous tax cuts in recent years, and funnel that revenue directly into Maine’s public schools. It was an effort to force the state to finally meet its obligation to pay 55 percent of the cost of essential education programs — a legal obligation the state has never met.
In essence, the referendum did the hard and dirty work that the Legislature should have been doing for years, allocating a dependable and sustainable revenue stream for education. Right now, too much of that burden falls onto property taxpayers. Fredette claims that this surcharge will drive the well-to-do away from Maine — a claim driven by ideology and unproven by data. The other three caucuses are urging Fredette to put his ideology aside and work together with his colleagues to pass a reasonable budget, but so far those calls aren’t being heeded.
But why? Is it bad to compromise? In a way, I can understand Fredette’s reluctance to do so. I would love to see all policy decisions in the Legislature align perfectly with my political convictions. But when you run for office, you accept that compromise is in your future. It is basic to all democracies. Legislators need to be able to sit down, to talk, to listen, to moderate their stances. We cannot place our political ideology above the will of the voters. That is the path toward autocracy, a form of government in which leaders think they know better than the people.
Fredette thinks he knows what is best for Maine, better than the voters. Eventually, he and his small group of obstructionists have to compromise, so why not now, before they inflict deep wounds on Maine and the majority of its people?
At its core, our budget crisis is a dispute about the referendum process and its validity. There is much to be said for reviewing the role of referenda in Maine. That is a conversation I would welcome. But it cannot be used to completely overturn referenda passed by voters who followed the rules of the citizen initiative process as it is written. The voters have spoken. There will be an immense loss of trust and terrible toll if the Legislature discounts their vote. If the Legislature does not preserve Question 2, at the very least it must come up with a compromise that respects its spirit and the will of the voters.
Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, represents his hometown and the town of Hermon in the Maine Senate.