What we’ve got here, as Paul Newman once famously said in “Cool Hand Luke,” is a failure to communicate.
The strange set-to by the Appropriations Committee over a meeting that either was or was not adjourned last Monday threatened to spiral into one of those Kabuki dramas where the political actors denounce each other even after exhausting all available content.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Longtime Republican committee member Patrick Flood took responsibility for the misunderstanding, and the committee ended up voting 8-5 – the expected party line division – on a bill restoring $40 million in municipal revenue sharing. The House took an initial vote on LD 1752 on Thursday, and we can expect it to be front-and-center this week.
To recap: Majority Democrats were growing frustrated that Republicans refused to negotiate over filling the $40 million gap, created in last year’s biennial budget as a placeholder, and which was supposed to be balanced by closing tax loopholes.
A designated task force was pretty much a bust, offering a range of suggestions rather than a firm proposal, but Appropriations Democrats were moving ahead to trim business subsidies and take the rest from surplus.
On Monday, they scheduled a vote. What everyone agrees happened is that at 5:30 p.m., Republicans left, later claiming they were assured the vote was postponed. Senate Chair Dawn Hill, R-York County, said that wasn’t the case, and proceeded with a vote the Democrats carried.
By Tuesday morning, there were dueling press conferences. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette called the action a “secret vote” and termed it “an unprecedented breach of trust.” Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, ranking minority member, used even stronger language, saying, “Any statement that says Republicans chose not to be there is more than absolutely wrong, it is a lie.”
Democrats then produced documentation they said showed there was no reason to expect a postponement.
This isn’t a committee that often quarrels publicly. Yet even after Flood said he goofed, Chase repeated that there was no misunderstanding, implicitly renewing the “lying” charge.
Flood, who’s not running for re-election, sometimes plays peacemaker on the committee. Chase has clashed with Democrats, and with Sen. Hill, who, in addition to calling a vote without Republicans on Monday, declined to let Gov. Paul LePage speak when he showed up, unannounced, at a budget session last spring.
So what is this all about? The Appropriations Committee tries valiantly for unanimous reports, so the split over a relatively small bill shows a lot is at stake.
Revenue sharing has existed for 40 years. Towns and cities get 5 percent of sales and income tax revenues, compensation for reductions in business property taxes made when the income tax was enacted in 1969. Yes, revenue sharing was trimmed in 1991-92 amid a budget crisis, and again in 2009 when Gov. John Baldacci declined to ask for a tax increase to buttress recession-ravaged revenues.
But no one imagined a governor would try to zero out the program as LePage did, calling it, in recent weeks, “welfare,” though he had a decidedly different view as mayor of Waterville.
Republican legislators were reluctant to vote because they’re between a rock and a hard place. Unlike LePage, they realize that further cuts to municipal aid, launching another round of property tax increases, is political poison. Municipal officials are influential in their own communities, and they’re united against further aid cuts.
But GOP lawmakers are loath to cross LePage, as they did in passing the biennial budget over his veto. That prompted LePage to disclaim any further responsibility for budgeting, which has extended even to not submitting a budget request – something that really is unprecedented. No one imagined a governor would do that, either.
Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett criticized the revenue sharing bill for drawing down the Rainy Day Fund. But how much influence can you expect when there’s no budget request on the table?
Democrats will push the bill through, LePage will veto it, and Republicans will side with either the governor or the municipalities – an unenviable choice.
But beyond the skirmishing, what no one talks about is the reason why there’s no money for revenue sharing and not enough for schools – the $500 million tax cut voted in 2011. The current budget restored about half that revenue loss through sales tax increases and limits on income tax deductions, but it’s still not enough. The state is paying 44 percent of school costs, against the required 55 percent, a huge gap.
LePage may be the only one still celebrating the “largest tax cut in Maine history,” but the fiscal mess it created will bedevil legislators not only this year, but for a long time to come.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.