Somehow, through a bitter legislative session that has seen an unprecedented level of partisan attacks, the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee shows that government can work, even during a time of divided government.
The process isn’t pretty.
But somehow, through the smoke and heat of a long session, Democrats and Republicans on the committee were able to write a unanimous two-year state budget that is a vast improvement over the rough draft Gov. Paul LePage presented in January.
For progressives, the budget falls well short of the ideal. It allows to stand LePage’s skewed tax cuts favoring the wealthy, which helped to create a budget crisis in the first place.
In addition, local governments will be asked to shoulder more of the burden for important services, such as fire, police and public schools. And there will be reductions in supports for the elderly and disabled.
But the breadth of the Appropriations Committee compromise is incredible. Through the hands-on and good faith negotiations of veteran lawmakers on the committee, Democrats and Republican leaders were able to agree on a plan that balances the budget and avoids the worst of LePage’s ideas.
To be sure, there are elements of the budget I hate. I recently joined the parent-teacher organization at my children’s school as the fundraising director. The job just got a lot harder as we are considering an effort to raise money to replace reading teachers who were already chopped in the school budget for next year.
With more cuts possible as revenue sharing is reduced, we may need to do a lot more.
In one of the great ironies of LePage’s policies, the governor proposed a budget that would have been disastrous for K-12 education at the same time he unleashed a badly flawed grading system on public schools. Taken together, the policies are discordant and hypocritical.
Two-year budgets in Maine typically require two-thirds supermajority support. This year the requirement is even tougher.
With LePage wielding his veto pen like a stiletto in a dark alley, Republicans who support the budget compromise will need to be willing to withstand a vicious and sustained effort by the governor to turn their votes.
The governor’s strategy includes TV advertisements, and he will likely give his staff and allies as long as possible to twist arms of moderate Republicans who were willing to work cooperatively with Democrats.
That fact gave Republicans added negotiating strength in the process, but Democrats were still able to achieve concessions.
While Republicans stood fast on the LePage tax cuts that weren’t paid for and benefit mostly high-income families, they did agree to temporary tax changes.
Getting Republicans to agree to revenue increases is a major Democratic victory that will protect the state’s economy and save jobs.
The budget compromise will increase the state sales tax by half-percent and will increase the tax on meals and lodging by 1 percent. Both increases are temporary and will automatically sunset in two years.
The budget also seeks to close about $40 million in corporate tax loopholes, although it doesn’t contain any specifics about which ones.
Those are major concessions, and it has taken courage by Republican members of the Legislature to buck their governor and agree that the cuts LePage wants are bad for our economy and bad for our people.
In addition, the compromise budget restores funding for K-12 education, for Head Start, for medicine for elderly and disabled Mainers and for property tax relief programs.
The legislative process, particularly for the state budget, is about building a consensus.
While each of us can surely find parts of the budget we dislike, we must give credit to the men and women who have worked countless hours to find common ground and to chart a path forward, as imperfect as that path might be.
They have faced a LePage administration that has refused to work with them or provide reliable information, and they’ve done their work under intense time pressure to pass a budget before the end of the fiscal year.
Importantly, the Democratic and Republican members of the committee, with the support of their caucus leaders, have found a way to keep government open and to avoid a devastating government shutdown.
In the coming days, as the Legislature considers the compromise budget, LePage will open fire on Republican supporters, while Democrats will face pressure from progressives to make things better.
The push to vote against the budget will be hard to withstand.
But lawmakers should stand firm, pass this imperfect budget and then vote to override what will almost certainly be a gubernatorial veto.
It’s tough work, but the Legislature has shown that it’s up to the challenge.