Inside Augusta

Mainers deserve better than rushed budget deals

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Where is the accountability in Augusta?

Lawmakers agreed on Tuesday to establish a special committee designed to formulate a bipartisan budget agreement by the June 30 deadline in order to avoid government shutdown. The next fiscal year starts on July 1.

For Republicans, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Sen. Roger Katz and Rep. Tom Winsor will lead negotiations, while House Speaker Sara Gideon, Sen. Cathy Breen and Rep. Aaron Frey will represent Democrats in the budget dealings.

While these leaders will likely come to an agreement in time to keep state government open, the move to appoint a committee to tackle the budget will be disastrous for Maine taxpayers. It almost guarantees that Gideon and Thibodeau alone will be trading for their party’s respective initiatives while the interests of Maine taxpayers get lost in the fray.

Our elected officials in Augusta had six months to come to a budget agreement, yet have once again waited until the last possible moment to take action. You may remember that, during the last biennial budget negotiations in 2015, legislative leaders resorted to illegal closed door “chairs and leads” meetings to hash out the next two years of state spending.

Again in 2017, a privileged few are permitted to barter with your tax dollars while the rest of the Maine Legislature is left in the dark.

Gov. Paul LePage submitted his biennial budget proposal in early January, giving lawmakers plenty of time and substance to work with. If his budget was a nonstarter for the legislature, they could have offered alternatives at any time during this session, or found common ground on key issues in a setting where everyone’s input was included.

Mainers deserve their budget be made in public with the full legislature present to express the interests and concerns of all of their constituents. Thibodeau, Katz, Winsor, Gideon, Breen and Frey do not represent the entire state, and their hurried discussions in the final seconds of session will not deliver a budget that the hardworking taxpayers of Maine would endorse.

What this committee will accomplish is neither an enigma or something to be proud of. Given the budget deadline is just 15 days away, Gideon and Thibodeau will come to an agreement with little time left for real opposition to mount. Then lawmakers, without understanding the full contents of the agreement, will be pressured by party leadership to vote in favor of the deal because Maine’s left-leaning media would carry out a full-fledged assault on anyone who attempted to defy leadership or fully defect.

Opposition efforts, even those rooted in principle with deep sympathy for Maine taxpayers, would be chalked up as an abandonment of responsibility or a willful pursuit of government shutdown.

Because this threat is too troublesome for lawmakers to endure, they will buckle under the pressure of leadership and approve a budget that increases state spending and dumps more money into our dysfunctional healthcare and education systems.

This is not how state budgets are supposed to be created, and Mainers should expect nothing less from their lawmakers than thorough, substantive negotiations that provide certainty from our elected officials that they have adequately deliberated each facet of state spending.

This is never the case, however, and it seems as though this pattern of behavior has developed into “business as usual” when it comes time to craft a biennial budget in Maine.

“They’ve been sitting on their hands since January, and shame on them,” Gov. LePage said Tuesday morning on WVOM radio, calling the 128th Legislature the “laziest bunch” he has ever seen.

I would convey this sentiment with more choice diction, but good on the Governor for telling it like it is. If each year at work you put off an important project until the last minute and presented unpolished work to your boss, you would surely be fired.

So, again, where is the accountability in Augusta? If lawmakers intend to toy with tax dollars each biennium, it is time the Maine people hold them accountable for their actions.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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