Policy Wonk: Will Democrats keep their eye on the ball?

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In the wind-down of legislative sessions, Maine Democrats’ recent track record is awful.

They’ve continually settled for tax measures that inevitably shrink state revenues and make budget cuts necessary to essential programs.

They haggled so long over the mechanics of paying hospital debt that it looked like Gov. Paul LePage alone favored taking this sensible step.

They fought for a Tax Expenditure Task Force, and got it, but then failed to make substantial recommendations for reducing state revenue losses. Had a significant level of lost revenues been retained, all essential programs would have been more adequately funded.

They compromised with the governor on energy policy. He got to kill Statoil’s $200 million dollar investment in offshore wind. The Dems secured the financial future of Efficiency Maine, an agency that has given rise to energy-cost saving projects statewide. But a typographical error, which the governor refused to correct, threatens to scuttle the agency’s work.

Finally, the Dems lacked the courage to judicially challenge the governor’s repeated refusal to issue voter-approved bonds, and to comply with existing statutory provisions.

Now it’s May again, and another legislative session is winding down. There are any number of issues on the table that will determine whether the Democrats have learned anything from past legislative end games with the governor. Three examples must suffice.

One issue involves the governor’s tax package. LePage would eliminate the estate tax and significantly reduce personal and corporate income taxes. At the same time he would raise and broaden the sales tax. His package is similar to two recent reform proposals by the Baldacci administration and by former independent Sen. Richard Woodbury. Republicans rejected both of these proposals.

The big difference between the governor’s proposal and the earlier proposals is that the earlier ones were “revenue neutral”: They raised as much revenue from proposed tax increases as was lost from proposed decreases. The revenue mix changed, but not the total tax revenue the state collected.

The trap in the governor’s tax package lies in the fact that his plan intentionally gives rise to an annual $260 million dollar reduction in state revenues.

This follows $300 million in annual tax cuts enacted in his first term. Continuing cuts in state revenues furthers the governor’s long-term goals, i.e., eliminating the income tax altogether, and shrinking state programs and expenditures. Essential state spending on schools, roads, etc., will decline further. Already high property taxes will increase.

The Dems have offered what they call a “Better Deal” for the majority of Maine taxpayers. But hard numbers, not slogans are the bottom line. The revenue losses arising from expiring sales tax increases must be covered; new changes to the tax mix must be revenue-neutral. If that doesn’t happen, total state revenues will continue to decline, and the governor wins.

A second key issue grows out of the governor’s refusal to issue voter-approved Land For Maine’s Future bonds. His refusal has nothing to do with bonding or land for Maine’s future. He’s attempting to extort concessions from the Legislature with respect to timber harvesting on state lands.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz has offered legislation to block this tactic. If it passes, it is likely to be vetoed. In the more unlikely event the veto is overridden, there is no assurance the governor will comply. Contrary to the state Constitution, he asserts a right to issue voter-approved bonds when he chooses.

The Dems need to resist this bullying tactic. The timber harvesting issue should be decided on its merits, and a judicial action should be brought to challenge the governor’s repeated refusal to issue voter-approved bonds when his ideology or political whim dictates.

A third issue grows out of the energy compromise hammered out two years ago. All of the parties then and now understand what was agreed to. The belated finding of a missing word – “and” – that essentially defunds Efficiency Maine ought not to be used by the governor to extort unrelated legislative changes to state energy policy.

Lepage’s conduct is reprehensible. Moreover, it is barred by a state statute that requires the correction of small, inadvertent errors that defeat the intent of the underlying legislation. Here the missing “and” should be inserted by the revisor of statutes and/or by the Legislature to achieve the intent of the Efficiency Maine legislation.

The Dems need to hold out for a one-word correction of the Efficiency Maine law. If that measure is not passed, or if passed, is vetoed by LePage, they should immediately take the issue to court. The governor is not above the law.

The Democrats, in the waning days of the legislative session, should not give in to LePage’s bullying and should have the courage to take core issues that affect all Maine people to the courts, if that becomes necessary.

Sidebar Elements

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.