Legislature will find alternatives to LePage budget

It’s disingenuous to say that critics of Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget haven’t proposed any solutions of their own.

Of course they haven’t. Not yet. But they are certainly coming.

The governor and the whole of the executive branch have been working on his budget for months, beginning far back in the summer.

They’ve tapped the expertise of hundreds of subject matter experts within state government, and they’ve prepared an extensive budget document and a political plan to support it.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has had not a single public hearing or committee meeting on the two-year spending plan. They have had neither the time nor the resources as of yet to fully digest what the governor has proposed, and are just beginning to explore alternatives.

In his weekly radio address last Saturday, the governor taunted Democrats: “Over the past few weeks, you’ve heard much from the loyal opposition about what they don’t like about my budget proposal, but let me be clear – you haven’t heard any solutions from them.”

Meanwhile, in a meeting with unenrolled members of the Legislature chronicled by the Bangor Daily News and other media outlets, the governor called names and threatened to veto alternatives.

According to Rep. Joe Brooks of Winterport, when asked about the details of his budget plan that was months in the making, LePage exploded: “You guys, you’re idiots and you’re just as bad if not worse than the other guys.”

Brooks said he believes the governor was talking about Democrats.

When the governor challenges Democrats and other critics to come up with alternatives, he should be careful about what he asks for.

He’s likely to get it.

The Legislature is not well-equipped to fully re-write the state budget. Not from scratch. They are built to react.

Term limits mean that few lawmakers have the opportunity to build the expertise they need to fully understand the intricacies of public policy. It takes time to come up to speed.

The part-time nature of the Legislature means that men and women – perhaps expert in their own field or business – are asked to match expertise gained through long careers by executive branch employees.

And the Legislature must build consensus, first among diverse members of each party and then among Democrats and Republicans — while the governor can act unilaterally. He doesn’t need to convince the people he works with to go along.

It’s his way or the highway with his commissioners and their employees.

But the Legislature also has advantages of its own.

It’s one of the ultimate examples of crowdsourcing and can draw on the experience, ideas and wisdom of thousands of Mainers who can help identify better alternatives to the governor’s ideas.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review might not be able to match the size of the executive branch, but the staff has developed a real understanding of the budget and the budget process.

And finally, the governor’s proposal is so bad and so out of balance that the Legislature has little choice but to find a comprehensive replacement.

The governor’s assault of local governments – to the tune of between $200 million and $300 million in shifts to property taxes – cannot stand. Already Republicans have joined Democrats in denouncing the cuts in revenue sharing.

Similarly, the voices opposing cuts to health care, education, pensions and other important programs have shown that they can work together.

Such unified opposition is a powerful motivator.

The Legislature will find a way through the pitfalls and traps of the governor’s budget because, in fact, there are real, meaningful alternatives. They will develop over the next few weeks.

This part of the process is stressful for every governor. He spends months upon months building a budget; he turns it over the Legislature and then – all of a sudden – it isn’t his anymore.

It belongs to the Legislature.

In the past, governors have remained engaged and part of the negotiations as the budget winds its way through the various committees in the Legislature.

LePage, so far, has willingly relinquished that involvement. He yells at independents; he’s frosty to many Republicans; and he won’t even talk to Democratic leaders at all.

He’s turned himself into observer, yelling from the sidelines.

In the next few months, the Legislature will do what the governor demands and give him an alternative plan. The question is, what will happen then?

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.