By Rep. Lawrence Lockman
Is it any wonder so many Mainers regard Augusta as a swamp that needs to be drained? The crash-and-burn conclusion of the recent legislative session was just the most recent and dramatic piece of evidence that all the happy talk about the benefits of bipartisanship is a giant crock of compost.
The session began with all the usual and customary hand-holding across the aisle, as naive Republican leaders agreed to let the Democrats introduce scores of self-serving, non-emergency bills that clogged up the legislative pipeline before the session even started. And what did GOP leadership get in exchange? An angry, hyper-partisan scolding from Madame Speaker at the end of the session, when she accused Governor LePage and the House GOP caucus of being obstructionists and engaging in — are you ready? — “terrorism.”
When will Republicans ever learn that Democrat leaders are not the least bit interested in any sort of compromise or accommodation unless it moves their far-left agenda forward? Watching this spectacle play out in the House chamber, I was reminded of conservative commentator and presidential speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan, who dubbed the GOP “The Stupid Party.”
Bear in mind that the second session of the Legislature is limited by the Maine Constitution to budgetary matters and emergencies. And our Constitution defines emergencies as “only such measures as are immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety.”
Despite that clear language, the Legislative Council voted to allow dozens of non-emergency bills to be considered when the council met last November prior to the convening of the second session in January. The council is made up of 10 legislative leaders from the House and Senate (five from each party) who act as gatekeepers for proposed legislation. House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau preside over the council.
Among the “emergency” bills that were green-lighted was a proposal to allow veterans free admission to the Maine State Museum, sponsored by House Majority Leader Erin Herbig (D-Belfast), who is termed out in the House and is now running for the state Senate. Herbig also sponsored a bill “to promote innovation and growth in Maine’s traditional industries.”
But if those bills were truly emergency measures, wouldn’t you expect Rep. Herbig to have draft language for the council to consider? But no, all she offered was a “concept draft,” nothing more than a bill title and one sentence of summary. That was enough to satisfy Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason (R-Androscoggin County), who is termed out in the Senate and is now running for governor. He cast the decisive vote to allow Herbig’s “traditional industries” bill to move forward.
This is what they call “bipartisanship” at the swamp.
Herbig quietly withdrew her empty shell of a bill several months later, and never bothered to flesh it out with any statutory language.
Voters should understand that before the session even started, the insiders on the Legislative Council spent weeks engaged in backroom bipartisan back-scratching and horse-trading to get their pet bills before the Legislature. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this entire process is an open invitation to political grandstanding in an election year.
By statute, the session was scheduled to adjourn on April 18. Given this legal deadline, legislative leaders should have prioritized budget bills that needed to be passed before statutory adjournment. Instead, funding for schools and nursing homes took a back seat to the load of politically motivated rubbish dumped in our laps by leadership.
We had to dispose of all the frivolous, non-emergency bills before we took up the budget work that should have started on day one of the session.
As everyone at the Coliseum on the Kennebec knows, the speaker’s office controls the flow of legislation and the House calendar. Speaker Gideon used that power to stall and delay consideration of budget bills. Then, at the last minute, with the clock ticking toward statutory adjournment, she insisted on rolling the individual spending bills into one big pork pie. House Republicans said no to extending the session under those conditions, prompting Madame Speaker’s “terrorism” meltdown the morning after.
Bottom line: Legislative leaders of both parties set us up for failure by mimicking the worst of Washington, D.C.-style politics.
Speaking for myself, I will not vote to go back into session until we have written assurances from Speaker Gideon that she will allow straight up-or-down votes on individual spending bills. That’s the only way to ensure accountability for how we spend the people’s money.
Enough of the grandstanding and posturing.
Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst) is serving his third term in the Maine House of Representatives (District 137). He is co-founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Maine First Project. He may be reached at [email protected]