Commentary

Posik: Are Secret Negotiations The New Business As Usual?

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The Maine Legislature approved a $6.7 billion biennial budget Tuesday morning, just in time to pass Governor LePage’s ten day veto period and avoid government shutdown before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.While this would seem like a job well done, these legislators deserve no pat on the back. A select few secretly controlled negotiations while their peers were left in the dark until voting occurred.

The manner in which this budget was created; behind closed doors in “chairs and leads” meetings held throughout the preceding weeks, then ultimately finalized in private discussions between House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick; Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport; Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland; and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, flies in the face of Maine’s long held tradition of and commitment to transparency, and shouldn’t be tolerated by the people of Maine

The secret negotiations between these leaders produced a series of amendments to be tacked onto the Appropriations Committee’s budget which had stalled once out of committee. One of those amendments makes major changes to Maine’s tax code. Lawmakers throughout the state first learned about the budget changes in caucus meetings held both at the State House and private locations outside of Augusta on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Many of our elected officials voted to pass the biennial budget without knowing its entire contents, and the public had no idea what the budget entailed until the measure was approved. A member of Speaker Eves’ staff told a reporter that they would know what was in the budget once it was voted on, reminiscent of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comments on Obamacare.

Several state legislators felt marginalized and acknowledged they weren’t included in the process. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston told the Bangor Daily News that closed-door negotiations between party leadership “was not the normal process.”

However Rotundo and the rest of Maine lawmakers and the public were denied their right to take place in the negotiations, imitating a political process more likely exhibited in Washington, D.C. than in Augusta, Maine.

The most abysmal aspect of this process is the excuse provided by the Democratic and Republican leadership conducting these secretive negotiations. Their explanation is that they ran out of time to follow a more public process.

Governor LePage offered his budget proposal on Jan. 9 of this year. The Democrats responded three months later in early April with their “Better deal for Maine” proposal. What took the Democrats so long, and why couldn’t an agreement be reached until mid June, after negotiations between both parties were made under the table?

This isn’t how Maine conducts its politics, and this type of behavior shouldn’t be accepted by our voters. Each side knew what they wanted, but few did their job, and so on the brink of a shutdown, a budget was quickly approved with little knowledge of what Eves, Thibodeau, Alfond, and Fredette discussed and agreed upon in the dark.

With the approved budget, we’ll likely avoid government shutdown, but in the process we’ve inherently created a new way of doing business in Maine. The political future of our state was decided upon by our heads of government, behind closed doors and away from the public eye. No member of the public witnessed these budget negotiations, disregarding Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), which specifically states that elected officials cannot conduct private discussions about a budget or budget proposal.

Leadership on both sides avoided the most contentious topics for months, until this type of behavior could be deemed acceptable. They skipped public meetings and held their own in private, late at night and in the early morning hours, dodging questions from the press and fellow lawmakers along the way until approval was reached with the rest of the Maine Legislature, which had little detail on what was embedded within these amendments except for their most basic ideological components.

And just like that, with no regard to the rights of the public, their respective constituents, or Maine’s FOAA law, party leadership in Augusta including Eves, Thibodeau, Alfond, and Fredette finally came to a biennial budget agreement in mid June, tarnishing government transparency and your right to know, just in time for the start of the next fiscal year.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at MHPC. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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