Our View: Public needs accountability. Not the shaft

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“In an unprecedented move by majority lawmakers Monday night, the Democratic members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted ‘ought to pass’ on a $40 million budget proposal without a single Republican present.”

So says the GOP.

Democrats say they were forced to make this move to restore $40 million in revenue-sharing cuts that would have crippled Maine towns and cities, which is something Republicans have made very clear they would fight, so a decision was made to move ahead.

So say the Dems.

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Democrats duped Republicans into believing that they would have an opportunity to debate the budget again Tuesday before the call to vote. But, then, the vote was called after Republican committee members had left Appropriations for the evening.

So says the GOP.

It wasn’t a surprise move, but a work session that was placed on the public schedule, and Republican leaders were told “in no uncertain terms” that Appropriations would be voting. Dems were trying to hold a public meeting on the bill, but Republicans refused to participate.

So say the Dems.

Nothing like a little drama to further cement party politics in the State House.

The Democrats accuse Republicans of avoiding a vote on controversial revenue-sharing cuts so constituents wouldn’t find out. Of course, when the issue comes to a floor vote, unless every Republican abstains, constituents are going to find out, anyway.

Republicans accuse Democrats of pushing the vote so they’re seen as sparing constituents ugly municipal property-tax increases, even though they could have delayed or even skipped the issue because state law includes a backstop that would have restored the cuts using future state surplus and other funding.

So, is this all magnificent grandstanding? Or have we just seen what the GOP is calling a disturbing “turning point” in state politics?

Who knows?

What we have here is a quintessential he-said/she-said — or more precisely, a Republicans-said/Democrats-said — situation.

But, then, the parties can say whatever they want about what did or didn’t happen and can explain the budget outcome any way they like, because the public will never know what actually happened.

Why?

Neither the public nor the press was present during much of the budget negotiations because talks were held behind closed doors in what the Appropriations Committee likes to call “party caucuses.”

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which governs the public’s access to meetings and documents, does not directly address party caucuses, and, according to the Office of the Attorney General, the issue of access “is one of statutory interpretation.”

Ahhh.

What the statute means relies on perspective (and maybe objective).

Lawmakers defend their private caucus discussions as allowable under party rules.

We accept that, to a point, such as when setting an agenda or backing certain candidates.

When it comes to discussions of public money, closed-door meetings are prohibited by state law.

Last year, when Appropriations was criticized for developing the budget in caucus, members defended the action, saying the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion allowing them to do it.

That’s not exactly correct.

In 2010, the Attorney General’s Office issued a letter — which is a far cry from an opinion — that “party caucuses are not generally committees or subcommittees of the Legislature” designated to do the work of the Legislature and may not be subject to FOAA.

However, when a quorum of Appropriations convenes behind closed doors for the sole purpose of deciding spending, that is the designated work of the Legislature, and that is the point at which a private caucus becomes the public’s business.

In fact, the position of the Attorney General’s Office is that if enough people of one party are present to drive decisions — as certainly happened on the topic of revenue-sharing — that would be covered by FOAA. Which means these discussions must be held in public.

Can you imagine if municipal budget-writing committees developed spending cuts in private? Or school committees convened secret meetings to set spending limits?

There’s a difference in scale between municipal and state spending, certainly, but the process of setting that spending must be the same. It must be done in public so the people who end up footing the bill can witness how and why decisions are made.

Lawmakers defend secret budget talks as the only way to get things done because discussions of money can often be painful and can get contentious, and they need to talk without the glare of public scrutiny.

Why? If municipalities, schools, planning boards, water districts, county commissions and dozens of other smaller government entities are able to develop budgets under full glare, why can’t legislators? Particularly when they’re spending millions and millions of public dollars?

The Appropriations Committee could have avoided the party backlash and public suspicion if it had held all budget discussions in the open, no matter how arduous that may have been.

When that doesn’t happen, as evidenced by Tuesday’s dual-party finger-pointing, the public gets the shaft.

Just before we get the bill.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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