Welfare for politicians takes center stage at Statehouse



By Rep. Larry Lockman

And now, ladies and gentlemen, almost live, from the Coliseum on the Kennebec on Capitol Hill in Augusta, it’s another installment of The Mike and Sara Show!

Starring Mike Thibodeau, president of the state Senate, and Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, this special summer edition is dedicated to bread and circuses. The competition between Sara’s House team and Mike’s Senate team to spend every last dime of the state’s budget surplus has been intense. And now the gladiators are looking to cut themselves a welfare check for several million dollars before they head home for the summer.

What’s going on in Augusta isn’t very funny, so casting the spectacle in metaphorical terms helps soften the blow. But this is serious business.

This protracted special session of the128th Legislature has been notable for highlighting the close working relationship and bipartisan co-operation between the presiding officers, Thibodeau and Gideon. And although it’s rarely mentioned in reports from Maine’s establishment news media outlets at the Statehouse, the president and the speaker have nearly absolute control over the flow of legislation. The presiding officers control which bills are brought to the floor for debate and a vote, which bills are tabled, which are used as bargaining chips, which are sliced and diced and which are rolled into larger packages, complete with poison pill proposals baked in.

Mike and Sara have used that power to pass spending bills in June that consumed the entire budget surplus of $139 million, for a net spending increase of 9 percent over the last two-year budget. And now that they’ve spent the cupboard bare, they’re focused on freeing up some cash to pay for candidates’ lawn signs, robocalls and bumper stickers.

Euphemistically known as “Clean Election” funding, welfare for politicians allows legislative candidates to collect a few dozen $5 checks from voters and then swap that petty cash for thousands of taxpayer dollars from the state treasury. House candidates now max out at a whopping $15,000, while Senate candidates get a maximum handout of $60 grand.

Enacted over 20 years ago, the welfare program has morphed into a corrupt money-laundering scheme that allows candidates to pool their loot with partisan firms that handle campaign printing and mailing operations. The mail houses routinely divert pooled funds from non-competitive to competitive races — an outcome never contemplated by the 12.2 percent of registered voters who approved tripling the taxpayer subsidy in 2015.

“Clean Election” cash has become the crack cocaine of Maine politics, with more and more candidates getting hooked every election cycle. At a cost of $3 million a year, it’s an addiction that takes money away from needed services for Maine’s most vulnerable elderly and disabled citizens languishing on the notorious Medicaid wait lists. That’s how greedy and strung out the politicians have become.

So here’s the good news.

Due to an apparent drafting error in the 800-page budget bill that was cobbled together last year on the last day of the session and then dumped in our laps for a vote, the “Clean Election” account is locked down and the bureaucrats are unable to disburse any more welfare payments to candidates.

Hallelujah!

But before anyone is overcome with joy, and just to be clear: candidates who submitted enough $5 checks will get to keep the free money that’s already been sent to them: over $5,000 for House candidates, and $20,000 for Senate candidates. That’s enough to pay for plenty of junk mail and robocalls without sucking any more money from the paychecks and pension checks of Maine people.

But it’s not enough to satisfy our esteemed leaders. Mike and Sara want the full boat of welfare benefits for politicians restored, even after they left over 1,000 seriously disabled Mainers stranded on the Medicaid wait lists.

In fact, The Mike and Sara Show is using every parliamentary maneuver at its disposal to get another puff on the campaign-welfare crack pipe. To cite just one example: a tax conformity bill that should have been passed months ago with near unanimous support is being held hostage to peel off enough votes to get the candidate welfare payments flowing again.

Gideon and Thibodeau have even blocked consideration of transportation bonds until they get their way. As far as they’re concerned, every other responsibility of state government, from road maintenance to services for the elderly, will have to take a back seat to legislative leadership’s desire to finance political campaigns on the backs of taxpayers.

And if rank-and-file legislators refuse to play their assigned roles in The Mike and Sara Show, the dynamic duo has the power to keep this extra special session of the Legislature going indefinitely.

Under these circumstances, why would any sane person run for a seat in the House or Senate? Good question.

I’m running for re-election because I believe Maine people deserve better than this. I’ve seen the phony bipartisan bloviating up close and personal, and I’m fed up. I’m prepared to drain the swamp in Augusta and put Maine people first, ahead of the lobbyists and assorted special interests camped out at the Coliseum on the Kennebec.

If voters in House District 137 want someone who will go along to get along in Augusta, I’m not your guy. But if you want someone with a proven record of standing up to the establishment in both parties on issues that matter to the folks who live and work in rural eastern Maine, then send me back for another term.

 

Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Amherst) is serving his third term in the Maine House of Representatives. He serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. He is co-founder and president of the conservative nonprofit Maine First Project. He may be reached at [email protected]