Capitol Notebook: Lies, 'fake' news and a phony government shutdown

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Politics has always been about power, as well as policy, with hard-fought battles sometimes leavened by finer moments of courage and compromise.

The recent fight over the state budget, leading to a three-day mini-shutdown of government, had aspects of both. But it will mainly be remembered for the political gamesmanship of Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies, and the governor’s assault on the press and accusations of “fake news.”

But it was LePage who got caught in a lie.

For those lucky readers who vacationed last week, without riveting their eyes on the unfolding drama in Augusta, a recap:

The usual budget-writing committee process broke down in the spring, with Appropriations Committee members failing to reach a unified budget agreement on key issues. Democrats and Senate Republicans later agreed on a state budget, but were stymied by House Republicans who stuck with LePage to force a three-day shutdown of state government.

But unlike the last government shutdown in 1991, a battle between Gov. John McKernan and Democrats over vital worker’s compensation insurance reforms, there were no big issues in this shutdown fight, only an attempt by Republicans to flaunt their power as a minority able to control events. The Democrats had long ago agreed to Republican demands to jettison the 3 percent tax surcharge on income over $200,000 that was approved by voters last November to boost education funding.

On Monday, July 3, Day 3 of the shutdown, state workers took over the Capitol hallways, yelling “Do your job” as House Republicans filed into the chamber. But later in the afternoon, when it seemed like the House would never achieve the two-thirds vote needed to end the stalemate, negotiations resumed between LePage and House Speaker Sara Gideon.

In the wee hours of Tuesday July 4, LePage signed a $7.13 billion state budget. He commended the House Republicans gathered around him for sticking together and “kicking butt.” They had forced a shutdown that had little to do with policy, but everything to do with their desire to be relevant. This was expressed by Rep. Paula Sutton, R-Warren, on her Facebook page:

“I think everyone now knows we are relevant, and that the Governor matters, and any budget deal will have to satisfy us and Governor Paul LePage.”

The Democrats, and moderate Republicans in the Senate, paid a price for being reasonable and willing to compromise. The final document includes $162 million in education funding for two years, about half of the revenue that would have been generated if the 3 percent tax surcharge had remained.

But the Democrats did prevent many of the proposed cuts to social programs, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. They also fought back cuts to General Assistance programs, and turned back attempts to exclude lawfully present immigrants from social programs, as well as preventing cuts to MaineCare, the state Medicaid program.

Soon after the shutdown ended, Gideon and LePage gave dueling radio interviews. Gideon predicted LePage would be less relevant, while the governor focused his attacks on the press, which he called “vile and useless.”

“I love to sit in my office and make up ways so they will write these stupid stories because they are just so stupid it’s awful,” he said of the press.

Stupid or not, the press soon caught the governor in his own lie, which he repeated on the radio show. On day three of the shutdown, the press had reported that LePage told two senators he was going on vacation for 10 days. The governor’s spokesman, Peter Steele, sharply denied the report, labeling it “fake news.”

But reporters secured a phone message tape of LePage telling Sen. Roger Katz he was leaving on vacation for 10 days. It was LePage who was creating the “fake” news, and trying unsuccessfully to follow the new far-right playbook of attacking the media and labeling everything as “fake news.”

Score one for the reporters. And wish them luck in covering the partisan battle that will continue.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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