Lawmakers drown in puddle of indecision



What do you do when a rabid raccoon attaches itself to your thumb? If you’re a strong, resourceful Maine woman, you drown it in a puddle. Rachel Borch passed into Maine legend last week by doing just that.

Borch went mano a mano – or is it mano a dento? – with the critter during a run in the woods. Sure, said she, she was “crying and screaming,” but she did what she had to do to quell the attack.

State legislators could take a lesson. They’ve been wrestling with a rabid budget for months. In the last weeks, they have been hopelessly deadlocked, unable to get the budget to turn them loose.

The recalcitrant piece is education funding. Voters thought they had taken care of that last fall when they supported a referendum to place a tax surcharge on income over $200,000, with the additional revenue to go to school funding. Not so fast.

Despite the support of the public, Republicans claimed a tax increase is just too harmful to the state and vowed to reject any budget in which it is included. Democrats, with the recorded vote of the people on their side, hung on to the surcharge like, well, like a rabid raccoon.

At the federal level, each legislative proposal has a House bill and a Senate bill, which most often differ by the time the bills have worked their way through their respective chambers. At that point, the bill is “conferenced” to reconcile the differences.

In Augusta, there is just one bill, worked by a policy committee, usually amended based on public hearing testimony and analyst research, and then sent for floor votes. The bill must pass in identical versions in each chamber. It may travel back and forth between House and Senate with amendments being put on and stripped off, or one body or the other “adhering” or “insisting” on its own version.

If there is an impasse, what most often happens is the bill is allowed to “die between the bodies” in “nonconcurrence.” But once in a while, when a case can be made to give it one last shot, a committee of conference is appointed to try to create an amended version that both bodies will accept.

The Appropriations Committee voted the budget out on a three-way report. That was no help at all, leading to chaos when the budget was debated on the floor. Leadership, with time running out, convened a Hail Mary committee of conference. No one can remember ever trying this with a budget.

Committees of conference are a creature of the legislature’s joint rules. The procedure is a bit fiddly. The committee is composed of six members, three from each chamber, appointed by the presiding officers. A legislator must have voted in favor of the bill to be eligible for appointment to the committee of conference. This necessitates some foresight on the part of the caucuses, with a few members casting contradictory votes so they will be in a position to serve on a committee of conference.

The stakes in this case couldn’t be higher. Senate President Mike Thibodeau took the unusual step of appointing himself to the committee, pretty much obliging House Speaker Sara Gideon to follow suit. Thibodeau added one senator from each party, reflecting the Senate’s Republican majority, and Gideon did the same, giving the D’s an edge on the House side.

The committee has 10 days to produce a report. If the committee can get at least two votes from each chamber’s three representatives, an amended version goes to the chambers for an up or down vote. Failure at this point means the bill dies, unless anyone can stomach trying again with a second committee of conference.

It is an unusual conundrum. Were the tax surcharge not the source, the fight might have been resolved in the end by simply splitting the difference in proposed school funding amounts. But Democrats, able to point to the publicly sanctioned surcharge, were reluctant to yield, though they did make an offer to reduce the surcharge percentage.

Republicans scraped up some money to bring to the table but ruled out a tax surcharge of any sort. They are on shaky ground given the referendum vote, though they have plenty of support for their anti-tax stand. So the debate is not a matter of degree. It is a black-and-white policy issue: To tax or not to tax? There is no middle ground there.

The daunting challenge was not made any easier when House Minority Leader Ken Fredette called the conference effort “doomed to fail.” Even if the committee succeeded, Fredette’s House Republican caucus threatened to stand in the way of the necessary two-thirds vote.

Gov. Paul LePage issued a pox on both their houses, calling legislators “the laziest bunch I have ever seen in my life” and stating he was “really ashamed to be a part of this government.” No help there.

The Legislature is now on its back, submerged in a puddle, staring up through the muck at a state shutdown, and time has about run out.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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