Governor Paul LePage is doing exactly what he’s promised Mainers he’d do from the first day he set foot on the campaign trail: rein in spending to lower the tax burden on the people of this state. If only his colleagues in the Republican-led legislature had the same focus.
Instead, the legislature’s Appropriations Committee continues to make modifications to the Governor’s budgets that water down real reform. Fortunately for the working people of Maine, Governor LePage is exercising a rare tool to make sure our government doesn’t continue to live outside of its means—the line-item veto.
LePage’s vetoes correct two problems the legislature has created through the modification of his original budget. First, the legislature ignored the fact that DHHS has been in violation of federal guidelines in submitting for reimbursements costs for criminals involuntarily admitted for psychiatric care. LePage’s budget sought to correct this, but the legislature is trying to thwart this correction. The result would be another DHHS reimbursement mess.
Second, the Governor is attempting to reel in the out-of-control growth of General Assistance funding provided to municipalities. In particular, local GA programs have started using the “emergency housing” provision in GA guidelines to provide long-term funding for housing costs.
This was clearly not the intent of the provision, but municipalities have created a web of de facto housing agencies through the GA program. It just so happens that Maine has a well-funded bureaucracy already in place to deal with these cases. It’s called the Maine State Housing Authority.
General Assistance is a program that needs increased scrutiny in our state. The Maine Wire reported earlier this year on the town of Windham’s struggle with the program. Windham dropped its contract with an outside social services company and hired an employee to monitor the program. The result was a decrease in GA expenditure from $450,000 under the outside company’s management to $25,000 under the town’s direct management.
Though every town is different, the Windham experience shows that cries for more state GA funding may be the result of poor management rather than actual need.
So why is the legislature pushing back against these changes? Enter the Appropriations Committee. By many accounts, the Appropriations Committee is being run by left-wing lobbyist groups, instead of the Republican leadership. Stalwart liberal Democrats like John Martin and Peggy Rotundo exercise more functional control of the appropriations process than their GOP colleagues, and these Democrats take their marching orders from state-funded social services lobbyists at Maine Equal Justice Partners and other similar groups.
Perhaps the biggest mistake in leadership of the 125th Legislature was the appointment of a remarkably weak liberal Republican as House Chair of Appropriations. Pat Flood, beloved by leadership for his docile nature, has on multiple occasions shown his inability to preside over the most important subset of the legislature.
The most public failure came toward the end of the First Session. Flood, so bothered by the disapproval of his Democrat colleagues, quit his position as chair in anger when the GOP passed PL90, the free-market health insurance reform package that has already driven down the growth in premiums for the majority of Mainers. Leadership made a second mistake in reappointing Flood to the position after the tears had dried.
Flood’s primary concern is comity with his peers on the Appropriations Committee, and Democrats have shown they know how to manipulate him. Martin and Rotundo can make the slightest shift in funding for any organization sound like the end of times, and Flood cannot resist the pressure. Flood’s concern for his Democrat friends is a microcosm of what is happening in this legislature at large.
When a proposal to reform government is put on the table, the first question current GOP leadership asks is, “What will the Democrats think of this?” The worship of collegiality under the dome has caused many in the GOP to lose sight of why they are there, and this results in grand errors in judgment.
A perfect example is the effort of the GOP-led legislature to fill a hole in the DHHS budget last month by raising taxes on Mainers by $5 million. In the end, pressure from conservatives thwarted this effort. But many of us have been left stunned that a GOP majority would really believe raising taxes was an option.
The 125th Legislature has been a mixed bag for conservatives, but the pattern that has emerged from leadership has not been impressive. It has come to Governor LePage to act as the adult in the room time and time again. He has had to push the legislature to remember who they were before they were swept into this leadership by an electorate that has become tired of the out-of-control growth of government.
Republicans are in charge today because the people of Maine want reform. Unless they get it, the GOP will be back in perpetual minority status by the end of the year.
LePage’s veto is a test also for Senate leadership, all three of whom face primary elections in their pursuit of higher office. Standing between a Governor popular with the base and his efforts to reduce the size of government would seem a perilous decision for Raye, Courtney, and Plowman, and primary voters will be watching.
Governor LePage’s refusal to capitulate to the legislature on these budget issues should be applauded. If those in the GOP want another shot at running the legislature next year, they should take a lesson in leadership from the second floor.