Divided we fail

Last week, Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston threw some cold water on the idea that Maine could see major tax reform this year.

“It’s difficult, at this point, to do any meaningful kind of tax reform,” she said.

Citing a refusal by the Maine Revenue Service to score the recently unveiled GOP budget plan, Rotundo suggested that the dreams of reforming Maine’s tax code, kicked off by Gov. Paul LePage’s ambitious but controversial budget plan, were becoming more and more unrealistic.

What she didn’t talk about, but is perhaps more responsible for what will undoubtedly be a watered down, milquetoast budget, is the divided nature of the Legislature.

Maine voters made the unfortunate decision last fall to send a Democratic House to Augusta to work with a Republican Senate, and they shouldn’t have. Divided government — a legislative body in one party’s hands, the executive in the other’s — is typically good. Divided legislative bodies are bad.

Voters across the country are frustrated by the paralysis that has been the hallmark of national government for the last decade or two.

The idea that Congress doesn’t do anything, or doesn’t do anything important, has been largely a creation of the middle four years of the Obama Administration, where Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate, and Republicans controlled the House.

In that period, the nation has faced enormous challenges, and citizens of all political stripes believe major action, and major reform, are necessary. Yet through a combination of basic, unresolvable policy differences, and a political Game of Thrones being played by nearly everyone, nothing got done. Frustration abounds everywhere.

Now, typically I am one of the first people to cheer government “doing nothing.” I find most of what government does to be counterproductive and harmful, so doing less is typically a good thing.

Yet in times of great need, when large changes are needed — particularly those that lessen the burden on people, freeing them to help power the nation’s recovery — action is in fact required. Paralysis can indeed by deadly, and everyone hates watching it.

Which is why divided legislatures, like the one Maine currently has, can be so problematic. With one party in control of one body, and another in control of the other, basic agreements on big, sweeping changes are virtually impossible to come to.

The incentives are all for inaction.

In the current budget debate, by refusing to work with the Republicans on any large-scale tax reduction and reform package, they preserve the status quo (read: higher taxes), stymie their political opponents, and ensure any future Democratic majorities will have an easier time pushing their agenda.

Likewise, Republicans will feel that despite being unable to tackle major reform, they will be able to ensure taxes do not go up (and perhaps go down some small, insignificant sum), and spending is held lower than it would be if Democrats were in control.

And so, everyone who saw this election as our first real chance in decades to make real, meaningful change, will be left with a foul taste in their mouth. Once again, the forces preserving the status quo will win out, nothing important will get done, and Maine people will lose.

A much better option would have been to elect a Legislature that spoke with one voice. Whether it was a liberal or conservative voice, it would be a voice and it would stand united, acting on issues important to the state.

A conservative Legislature would be able to pass a sweeping state budget reform package, lowering state spending, dramatically lowering taxes, and lessening the regulatory burden on Maine people. It would, at the very least, give the state an opportunity to try a different pathway and see how it would work.

Likewise, a liberal Legislature would pass its own agenda, and have to face off with a Republican governor, and find a real compromise. This is something we saw in action in the previous Legislature. Granted, it wasn’t my favorite ideological orientation in Augusta, but at least it was functional.

Maine has always been particularly fond of ticket-splitting, voting for a member of one party for one office, and another party for another office. A great expression of the independent nature of the Maine voter, but disastrous when it produces a Legislature like we currently have.

It is time to re-evaluate that practice. At least when it comes to electing Maine’s Legislature. Give the people of Maine an real chance to pass an agenda, rather than negotiating for months just to keep the status quo.

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.