Maine legislators as knights of the status quo

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, with Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, with Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester. Troy R. Bennett | BDN


Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

What a ridiculous mess.

The governor proposed a major tax cut. Legislative Republicans proposed a major income tax cut. Even the Democrats proposed an income tax cut, flawed as it may have been.

And yet, the reported budget deal between the Senate Republican caucus and the House Democrats includes no income tax cut.

That is unconscionable and wholly unacceptable. It would be as if you and two friends agreed to grab pizza for dinner tonight and somehow ended up at a Chinese restaurant.

I believe there has been a systemic failure of leadership in all corners.

Democrats certainly deserve a lot of blame. Delay and obstruct. Then use the leverage given to them by the limited sand left in the hourglass to threaten Republicans, attempting to force them into giving up the farm to avoid a government shutdown. A shutdown they themselves made possible by delaying so long.

But it is the Republicans who deserve special scorn. I have never before seen so much leverage frittered away.

They control the governor’s mansion, the state Senate, and they have a strong minority in the state House. Together, with one negotiating position and a unified caucus they could have hammered the Democrats and forced major concessions that lowered state spending, reformed welfare, and lowered taxes.

Yet from the very beginning, they fractured themselves. It isn’t a single person’s fault, it is everyone’s fault. The more protestations and recrimination I hear from all three camps, the more I think of a broken vase in the living room, and three children all pointing fingers at each other.

The governor crafted a budget without legislative input and included a difficult pill for his party to swallow in sales tax hikes and extensions. The Senate Republicans never seemed interested in income tax cuts — with or without those hikes and extensions — obsessed instead only with preserving the sales tax. The House Republicans were most interested in spending cuts.

Three competing groups within the same party. If I were a Democrat, I would have folded my arms and laughed at the chaos.

And what have those three isolated positions gotten us at the end of the day? The status quo. A deal that includes no income tax cuts, increases state spending, and fails to reform Maine’s welfare system.

I know, I know. We have divided government. Democrats are in control of the House, and that means Republicans can’t simply get what they want. But real compromise means each side gives up something to get something.

The Democrats certainly managed to get something. They preserve the status quo on taxes. They extract additional spending. They get to keep an immoral, counterproductive, and reviled welfare system in place, untouched.

What do the Republicans get? The sales tax will sunset back to 5 percent, and there will be no extensions. That’s good, but again, it is what current law would have made happen anyway.

And rather than income tax cuts, we might get a vote by the people of Maine on a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds legislative majority to raise income taxes.

But then, what happens if the people vote down such limitations (as they have in the past — twice)? You will have negotiated for something that evaporates before your very eyes.

And even if it did pass, what really changes? Each time Maine income tax rates have been raised, it has been as a result of a two-thirds majority anyway. All budgets require a two-thirds majority, so Democrats can simply leverage the budget process to get their increases. This “concession” is not nearly substantial enough to justify capitulating on income taxes and welfare.

Divided government is ugly. I get it. But while compromise is necessary in this type of situation, any eventual compromise has to be fair to both sides. This isn’t.

I cannot conceive of any reason why, with everyone at the negotiating table proposing income tax cuts, that none are in this deal. After the people of Maine clearly spoke, begging for welfare reform last November, it is unimaginable that Republicans can allow Democrats to yet again preserve the system as is. And how aren’t Republicans coming together on the one issue they all agree on — spending — to fight for budget reductions?

Divided government is not to blame for that failure. Compromise is not to blame. As this historic opportunity for substantive reform of Maine government vanishes, remember that it passed because Augusta is a dysfunctional wasteland, and it failed you.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.