We had to pass this budget, to find out what is in it

It was, perhaps, the most disappointing thing I had ever heard.

On Tuesday, I was on the phone with a Maine lawmaker who shall remain nameless, talking about the upcoming vote to override the governor’s veto of the state budget. During the conversation, I asked which way the vote would likely come out, and why.

“I was talking to one of my colleagues about this, and asked what he thought about the changes to the tax code, specifically the Maine Revenue Service estimate that taxes would go up for thousands of Mainers,” said this lawmaker. “He replied to me that he didn’t know how MRS had come up with that estimate. I don’t feel comfortable that I know what is in this budget, and Matt, no one here knows what this budget deal really means.”

My heart sank. Lawmakers being pushed to vote on something they don’t fully understand because of a self-created ticking clock, and the threat of a shutdown. Is anyone in Augusta going to defend this with a straight face?

I advised several lawmakers who I spoke with on this subject to vote their conscience, and if they truly thought it was the best deal that they could come up with, that they should vote for it, but if they didn’t think it was, and didn’t like how the process worked, that they should vote against it.

No lawmaker should be put in that position. I have long since grown tired of writing about the budget process, but the sad end to this sorry episode in Maine political history is yet another example of how not to govern.

Say what you want about the governor’s initial budget reform plan, but you knew what was in it. LePage proposed his budget in early January, affording the public months to analyze it. He went on the road to defend it. You heard him on the radio discussing it. Organizations, such as the one I lead at The Maine Heritage Policy Center, as well as our counterparts on the left, analyzed the plan and evaluated its merit.

I completely understand the conservative criticism of the plan. I myself was quite critical of it, particularly the level of spending, and the inadequate tax rate cutting. But whatever you thought of it, if somebody asked you to vote on it, you would know what the plan was.

Not so with this budget. The Legislature dithered and wasted time for months, as no leader or party caucus wanted to go on record with their own plan. Maybe that was out of a fear of antagonizing LePage. Maybe (probably) it was the timidity of unsure leadership, terrified to put forth a plan for public scrutiny.

Whatever the reason, months went by with no counterproposal from anyone. Then, the proposals we got — one from House Speaker Mark Eves and the Democrats, and one from the House Republicans — were almost immediately dead in the water, as neither had the ability to pull two-thirds of either house to support it.

That’s when the process went off the rails. Leaders began meeting with each other in small groups and behind closed doors, hammering out haphazardly constructed deals that were so messy that they appeared to have been scratched out on the back of a napkin.

Multiple deals were killed, and redrawn. Time was running out. LePage’s avalanche of vetoes delayed the Legislature further. The ticking clock grew to be a stalking predator, devouring any hope of a rational, well thought out budget deal.

Maybe what they ended up approving only hours before a government shutdown was, in fact, the best deal they could come up with, and will be heralded by future generations as a brave and bold compromise budget that saw members of both parties giving something to get something as they came together to truly reform Maine’s government. But I doubt it.

Even if it was such a visionary budget, the way it was constructed is an embarrassment, and the way it was passed is shameful.

There was no public input, or transparency into its construction. Worse, there was no time, or mechanism, to vet the proposal publicly. No time to truly analyze. No road show. No public events trying to sell it. No questions back and forth with concerned citizens.

No, just a deal cut in secret, thrust upon the citizens of Maine and their representatives in government. And, as was relayed by not just the lawmaker I cited earlier, but in countless others I spoke with who said the same thing, even those making the ultimate decision did not really understand what they were voting on.

Whether or not you think this is a good deal, you should be intensely bothered by that, and you should not stand for it. This cannot be the way Maine passes a budget.

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.