Time to put some muscle behind this budget tussle

A lot of scorn has been heaped upon the Maine Legislature for failing to get a budget out on time. “Government shutdown is better than budget nonsense,” blared one headline. No. Government shutdown is not better than anything.

It is wrenching, complicated and costly. It leaves citizens without services and employees without paychecks. It leaves the state in complete turmoil, with the governor having to make decisions on the fly about what constitutes an “essential service.”

Passing a budget begins with the governor, who proposes the cost of administering state services, passes to the Appropriations Committee, where every line is examined and scads of public comment is taken, and then goes to the floor of the House and Senate for approval. The governor must opt to sign it or not, and if not, the Legislature must try to override a veto.

The process is exhaustive and exhausting. If the Legislature manages to reach agreement it had best take the money and run, regardless of the chief executive’s verdict of the final product. But when the Appropriations Committee cannot muster a broad consensus there is big trouble afoot.

The summer solstice has passed; the days are getting shorter. The budget languishes. Late-to-the-party House Republicans have put forth a proposal of their own. Governor Paul LePage has said he will sign it. It would be ironic if that is the magic elixir that brings legislators together, since the House Republican caucus has been the outlier during the LePage administration, but stranger things have happened.

Their proposal includes a poison pill or two that have already been rejected by the Legislature. A statewide teacher contract. School consolidation incentives. A $1-million legal fund for Governor LePage. (Huh?) The proposal shovels everyone toward middle ground, but still “falls short” according to House Speaker Sara Gideon. The Governor called it a “reasonable proposal,” bringing to mind Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” but without the consumption of babies.

The only thing worse than a shutdown — maybe — would be a continuing resolution (CR), a gimmick used by Congress to extend federal funding beyond the end of the fiscal year for a fixed period of time. Having once yielded to that fatal attraction, it has now become routine in D.C. Can’t pass a budget? No worries. A CR means never having to say you’re sorry.

Maine’s Constitution may protect us from that particular gimmick. It prohibits deficit spending, so the state is required to pass a balanced budget. In 2013, Attorney General Janet Mills opined that that means a CR is off limits. Good. All a CR does is allow a legislative body to defer budget decisions with fewer political consequences.

When you think about the degree of difficulty to get the two parties to agree to anything, much less make spending decisions, it is a wonder we ever have a budget at all. Yet with the exception of 1991, our Legislature has managed to do it for every biennial budget.

How has that happened? Randy Berry, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee for 2000-2002, thinks back. “We had some reasonable people on both sides of the aisle, we let every member of the committee bring up whatever they wanted, and we were patient.” Another factor that made a difference, according to Berry, was the degree of cooperation from Governor Angus King’s office.

Department commissioners and staff were free to attend Appropriations Committee meetings and, regardless of what they might have been thinking, were prompt and courteous about supplying information the committee requested. It is not possible to imagine Governor King calling legislators “the laziest bunch I have ever seen,” as Governor LePage has done.

Sometimes a budget agreement is reached amicably; other times it comes out of a much harsher process. Former Hancock County Senator Ruth Foster lost her seat on Appropriations for daring to compromise to get a budget deal done. Many committees, struggling at the end of the process, see the budget snatched away by leadership and completed behind closed doors. Then comes the not-so-pretty process of locking down the votes needed for passage, one browbeaten legislator at a time.

Hancock County can take some pride in the fact that two of its legislators, Republican Sen. Brian Langley and Democratic Rep. Brian Hubbell, have poured massive effort into finding a solution. The two served on the Education Committee; Sen. Langley continues to chair Education, while Rep. Hubbell now serves on Appropriations, so the two are well-versed in the school funding and management issues that are holding up a budget deal. Despite the pair coming up with 45 pages of language they hoped could move the Legislature toward agreement, the fight continues over school funding, how much and from where?

The budget process is an imperfect one for sure, but combined with honest effort, some good will and a bit of muscle it has almost always gotten the job done. Will this be the second time the Legislature cannot complete the fundamental duty of passing a budget? Let’s hope not.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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