Necessity, tough times bring parties together in the end

0

Every legislature has its own pace, and the one that finished up last Monday was a brisk march. Not only did lawmakers leave town more than a week early, even counting a short break to settle on a bond package, but they also proceeded with businesslike dispatch through their annual agenda.

That two prominent senators, Libby Mitchell and Peter Mills, are running for governor may have helped moved things along – the June 8 primary is just eight weeks away. But the quick conclusion had more to do with the state’s grim financial picture. For once, there really was no money for just about anything.

So the session’s last act – approval of a $58 million “jobs bond” represented a notable break with the no-new-spending theme.

When things broke off the previous week, compromise was not in prospect. Democrats were holding firm for an $85 million package, while Republicans – four of whom broke ranks to approve the bond in the House – were withholding support necessary to achieve two-thirds for passage in the Senate.

Advertisement

But negotiations resumed, and a deal was made. The result was notable in several respects. The transportation projects that make up the bulk of the new bond question were divided almost equally between roads and rail/port improvements – the first time that’s ever happened.

If you count the surplus cash the state is providing to purchase much of the old Bangor & Aroostook system in northern Maine, nonhighway spending comes out ahead. A recognition that our transportation system needs to shift away from its near-exclusive reliance on cars and trucks is implicit in these choices.

No longer does passenger rail service to Lewiston, and freight on the old Mountain Division line to Portland seem like a pipe dream. Amtrak service to Brunswick by 2012 was achieved earlier through a federal high-speed rail grant.

While three other bond questions due for the ballot were trimmed – chiefly by jettisoning energy-efficiency funding that was covered by other federal grants – there should be a significant and positive effect on construction jobs that have disappeared by the thousands.

So why were Republicans willing to deal? Many started from “no” and had to move a long way to the final Senate vote tally of 31-4 in favor. This certainly isn’t the case in Washington, where GOP opposition to Democratic plans is still nearly monolithic.

Part of the difference is the scale of the legislation. Health care reform is epochal, and marks a huge political change of direction. As one columnist observed, the reason why Republican opposition to health reform became so hysterical, even irrational – like tax reform in Maine, it was basically a Republican approach proposed by Democrats – was that it will be impossible to go back. Once Americans realize they have a guarantee of health care coverage all their lives, they will never give it up.

Nothing like that was at stake in Maine, yet there was another factor that led to agreement. The severe cuts in state spending — $310 million on top of $500 million in reductions last year – are going to make it difficult for government at all levels for a long time to come.

The impact may be felt most strongly at the municipal level where, according to the Maine Municipal Association, revenue sharing was cut by 30 percent, and school funding will amount to 45 percent of local budgets – far short of the 55 percent required by statute. More than $200 million in municipal reductions will require significant layoffs and other cuts.

Although it’s not the ideal way to explore alternatives, there does seem to be an upwelling of interest in combining dispatch and police services, and school consolidation may get a new look in districts that thought they could get by without it. These are the most promising ways to reduce spending without slashing services.

And candidates for governor can expect to be asked some tough questions, too. If Mainers really are opposed to raising taxes, can we still justify the hundreds of millions in new exemptions, mostly for business, that we’ve carved out over the past 15 years?

So the bond package must be seen in the context of an economy that’s dead in the water, with only scant prospects of job growth even as the financial sector begins to revive.

Faced with that stark picture, Maine’s elected leaders did what they could to limit the damage. Given their consensus, voters are likely to ratify the bond package. But the changes facing state and local government are just beginning.

Advertisement
SHARE