Maine needs leadership, not acrimony, to pass a budget

If this latest budget/shutdown fiasco teaches us anything, it’s that Maine’s way of running state government is broken.

And this year’s budget situation, though closer to the precipice of shutdown than normal, is not really much different than in previous years since Gov. Paul LePage took office.

LePage’s budget approach disregards the key component of the lawmaking process: consensus.

He works on his budget proposal in the dark, and presents it during the legislative session as a diktat, with no support from anyone, and no plan to garner support for it other than the threat of his ever-looming anger.

This is not the way lawmaking is supposed to happen outside of an Eastern Bloc nation.

In the grown-up world, the first step toward passing a budget or any type of law is to build support for it. And to build support for public policy, you first have to talk to people about it. In the LePage era, this simply doesn’t happen.

Gov. Paul LePage

Instead, the governor creates roadblocks for the Legislature in an attempt to leverage the stress of the ticking adjournment clock to his advantage. He prevents his staff from participating in the budget process, and he withholds public information from lawmakers, information that they need to ultimately shape and pass a budget.

Think this is an exaggeration? Ask former LePage budget commissioner RIchard Rosen, who was ignominiously fired this month for merely speaking with legislators about the budget.

It’s a perverted and cynical way to do business, and one our government isn’t structured to avoid. Prior to LePage, I don’t think anyone could conceive of a chief executive who would break the rules and disrespect the basic tenets of government the way he has. So when LePage refuses to allow access to department heads, there is no mechanism the Legislature can use to gain access to them. LePage wins these battles out of sheer audacity.

What our government structure anticipates is leadership, and this administration simply does not believe in the word. We have a legislative process that expects an earnest desire to win arguments about policy and pass bills based on majority consensus. What we get instead are half-baked policy ideas crammed into the narrow confines of a last-minute budget negotiation, while a lazy chief executive replaces political skill with the ability to forego all sense of decency to get his way.

Take education reform as an example. In this year’s budget, the key fight was the 3 percent surcharge levied on annual incomes above $200,000 to be used to fund education. Republicans pledged to roll this tax hike back, while Democrats fought to retain at least the increase in funding the tax was supposed to provide. In the middle of this debate, LePage and his cohorts in the House GOP caucus started demanding widespread education reform as a condition of increased funding.

I believe Maine’s education system is in dire need of reform, but this isn’t a rational way — or time — to begin such a major job. The final days of a budget negotiation, as the state braces for a potential shutdown, is not the time for a thoughtful and thorough debate about our education system. If we are going to implement things like a statewide teacher contract or school administration consolidation, these ideas need first to have the requisite public debate and second to gain appropriate consensus so the public doesn’t feel like they’re being forced into something they don’t agree with. Instead, LePage is using the budget impasse like a hostage negotiation to push through policies that he’s done little to build public support for.

Sweeping policy changes need consensus or they will fail. Look at Obamacare — passed without a single Republican vote, and doomed to failure either of its own accord or through a systematic dismantling now that the partisan makeup of Congress has changed.

In Maine, look at Gov. John Baldacci’s ill-fated school consolidation plan, the expansion in sales tax overturned by People’s Veto in 2010, or the elimination of same-day voter registration overturned similarly in 2011. It’s not enough to simply have the votes in the Legislature to make good policy — you need some sort of buy-in from the public in order to make the kind of broad change that really results in progress.

Right now, though, Augusta is lurching from one legislative crisis to another, and the real work of building consensus for policy just isn’t happening. So we watch this white-knuckle budget process careen toward catastrophe, and the real long-term problems we face fail to get their due consideration.

At the heart of our broken legislative process is an unfortunate lack of respect for the concept of democratic lawmaking. Many in Augusta simply fail to recognize that public policy needs to reflect the will of the people, in all its diversity, to be successful.

To fix this, we need real leaders willing to govern through consensus-building, not strong-arming. We need to start valuing leadership over acrimony, and start choosing elected officials who can bridge divides rather than create them.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.