Scene: Maine House of Representatives. Close shot of Governor Janet Mills at the podium. Action. Governor Mills begins her “State of the Budget” address. “In this budget there are no tax increases. There are no gimmicks. There are no negative balances. This budget is pro-growth. It is pro-jobs. It is pro-people.”
A voice from offstage: “…outrageous…” “…irresponsible…” (inaudible) “…drunken sailor…”
Wait, that voice sounds familiar. Could it be former Governor Paul LePage? It could be, and it was. Apparently, though he decamped to Florida after the fall election, it is not all fun in the sun.
The former governor clearly wants to be a player, albeit from 1,700 miles away. He warned his successor in the Blaine House that she had better toe the line when it comes to fiscal matters or he would be back to unseat her in four years.
Governor Mills took the 2018 election with a majority vote in a 3-way race, something LePage was never able to do. She seems to be taking the advice of the Brits: Keep calm and carry on. Governor LePage may love to mix it up with his adversaries, but Governor Mills is simply ignoring him.
Her budget hewed to some basic Republican principles. No new taxes. Investment in infrastructure. A cautious position on new spending. Protection of state reserves. It does undertake initiatives that will increase spending, to the tune of 11 percent overall. Medicaid expansion. A $40,000 minimum teacher salary. Working toward restoration of state-municipal revenue sharing, and the 55 percent state share of education funding. The governor proposes to leave no federal dollars on the table.
Though Governor LePage can rightly claim credit for some important fiscal landmarks, such as paying off hospital debt and building up a solid “rainy day” fund, what we have never seen is a balance sheet. What did we give up in order to realize those fiscal goals? We eliminated many public health nursing positions, including those that provided home visits to newborns. Waiting lists for mental health care grew. Roads and bridges deteriorated.
A recently released report on cases handled by the Maine Office of Child and Family Services identified the need for additional training, improved response times, and implementation of online reporting to protect Maine’s children. All this takes funding. None of this happened when the primary goal was reducing the budget.
If we had a balance sheet that showed budget reductions versus programs trimmed or lost, we would have the opportunity to weigh the merits. Are we willing to live with fiscal restraint when we fully understand just what we will have to do without? Maybe so. But it would be helpful to see the pros against the cons before we have to make a choice.
When one has been immersed in the day to day operations of the state, it can be hard to let go. Governor LePage was committed to the good of the state as he defined it. However, governors generally acknowledge the passing of their “moment” and leave the field to the new administration. It is typical of this untypical governor to want to remain in the fray, attempting to preserve his policies and fend off change. But this is unrealistic.
All of state government is in the hands of the Democrats. Their success in managing the state will determine whether they remain at the helm. So far, Governor Mills has turned in a measured and optimistic performance. Honestly, it is a relief from the vituperative, red-faced, finger-pointing of the past eight years.
Governor LePage certainly defied the norms of state government, and in many ways it was refreshing to see a politician march to his own drummer. But to the extent “success” relies on harshness and intimidation, it does not promote the overall health of public discourse or interparty relations, which are essential to the operations of government.
An event in Ellsworth last weekend sought to bring together people of diverse opinions and facilitate a conversation in which dignity and respect prevailed. Sixty people turning out on a Sunday afternoon to talk with each other about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? That’s a win.
There were members of both parties and people with no party affiliation at all. Many opinions were laid out, some were probed, respectfully, for further parsing, but voices were not raised nor were oaths uttered. It seems that it can be done and four men who call themselves “the four old guys” made it happen.
True, the spectrum of beliefs could have been wider and the demographics broader, though it took just two young people, far outnumbered by their elders, to speak up and raise the sense of optimism in the room. There may be hope for us after all.