Legislative end game far from clear

Whoa! You could get whiplash watching the state budget negotiations.

The Appropriations Committee finally passed out a budget on a divided report, and the score was House Republicans against the world.

The majority budget eliminated most of Governor Paul LePage’s favorite proposals. There would be no income tax reduction, no expansion of the sales tax base and none of the changes the governor sought for welfare reform. Municipal revenue sharing would stand, untouched. (Untouched, that is, except for having been reduced by more than half over the last few years.)

Democrats acquiesced to Republicans in agreeing to support a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote to raise any tax. That was a halfway measure toward the Republican hopes to abolish the income tax by constitutional amendment. But halfway is what it’s about, right? Compromise.

No way, said the House Republicans. Without their votes, the budget could not survive a LePage veto. Like a mouse is snatched up by an owl, the budget was snatched up by legislative leadership. Having been worked largely behind closed doors by the Appropriations Committee, it came blinking into the sunshine just long enough to travel from that second floor committee room to the third floor when it again vanished behind the doors of the leaders.

You’ve noticed that the adjective “powerful” usually precedes the Appropriations Committee’s name? Remarks reported from appropriations chairs went like this: Senate Chair James Hamper said, “Leadership is in control. I’m on a blackout.” House Chair Peggy Rotundo was equally in the dark. “I don’t know what’s being negotiated by the leadership.”

Yes, the people who had just spent five months examining the budget line by line, listening to hundreds of hours of testimony from the Maine public (and Maine lobbyists), were left sitting on the outside.

They couldn’t even press their noses to the glass, because there was no glass, just a door.

It is discouraging, to say the least, for an Appropriations Committee to put its heart and soul into the making of a budget only to have it taken away by leadership at the last minute.

And no offense, but leadership – and anyone else who has not served on the committee – may be on top of the policy issues, but they are not cognizant of the myriad details of a budget and how a nudge here makes a hole there.

At any rate, it mattered not, because when leadership tried to reach an agreement last week, the House Republicans shot that down, too. The new proposal restored cuts to the income tax and broadened the sales tax base, both of which were proposals the governor had in his original budget. The agreement to put the two-thirds vote on tax increases into the constitution vanished.

“No, no, a thousand times no,” said the House Republicans. If there are any statesmen in this debacle, it is the two presiding officers, Senate President Mike Thibodeau and House Speaker Mark Eves. Time and again they have urged the troops back to the table. Both have been willing to make concessions in order to get the job done. Thibodeau has been particularly restrained in not throwing fuel on the fire. Predictably, he is taking a beating from the House R’s and the governor as well. He should take it as a badge of honor.

The governor’s contribution to a budget resolution? It was to dismiss the idea that a state shutdown would be all that dire. It’s simple, said he. He would just extend the current budget a month at a time, by 1/12th of the current year’s total.

Three problems with that logic, governor. First, Maine has no provision to “extend” a budget. Second, the state’s bills are not evenly divided by month. Much more may come due in one month than in another. And third, it is exactly what Congress does with “continuing resolutions” that makes us think of them as irresponsible banana heads, not to put too fine a point on it.

In the meantime, the governor is living up to his promise to veto all bills sponsored by Democrats, an ill-considered action if ever there was one. Of the first 12 to fall victim to his threat, the legislature overrode his veto on 10 of them. And not just with the aid of a few Republicans, but with most of them.

Note to governor: You are losing the legislature. Never mind the Democrats, the Republicans are no longer willing to be the wind beneath your increasingly quirky wings. You have three years left in your second term. It will be a long, cold slog with no one but Ken Fredette at your side.

Other governor’s initiatives are going down to defeat, too. His bill proposing that the Attorney General be appointed by the governor went down 115-32 in the House. Republican representatives present voted 33-32 against the bill. The governor’s bill to allow the governor to appoint the state treasurer? Dead. The governor’s bill proposing a constitutional amendment to eliminate the income tax? Dead.

The budget is not the only unfinished bill in the system. While legislative leadership announced Monday night that a deal had been reached, it is by no means a sure thing.

When you are reading this, the legislature should have adjourned. T’ain’t likely.

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