The Right View: Legislature's budget affair is nothing to cheer

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If you missed the WGAN Morning News with Ken and Mike on June 18, you missed some of the best local radio ever.

Co-host Ken Altshuler gave Maine Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a verbal smack-down over the secretive budget meetings in Augusta, the likes of which I’d never heard from him toward a member of his own political party. Co-host Mike Violette at one point became so disgusted he said he was turning off his microphone.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, struggled to explain how an opaque budget process was actually transparent, admitting the process did not work “the right way,” and lamented working indoors over what had been one of our first really nice Maine weekends of the summer.

Altshuler was defending Gov. Paul LePage, and Violette was hammering Fredette. It was truly the end of days.

To Fredette and Alfond’s credit, they did accept the invitation to go on air and “explain” the ugly budget process that had just transpired up in Augusta. However, not much explanation was forthcoming.

Accusations flew. Violette parroted The Maine Wire, saying “several state legislators felt marginalized and acknowledged they weren’t included in the process. Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, told the Bangor Daily News that closed-door negotiations between party leadership was not the normal process.” Violette noted Rotundo said she had never seen anything like it in her years in Augusta.

Violette also noted an anonymous source, a prior four-term state senator, who stated that over $200 million of taxpayer money had been monkeyed with in the last hour, during closed-door sessions with only four members of the House and Senate present, no reporters, and no recording of the meetings.

Those four lawmaker were House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick; Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport; Alfond and Fredette. (As a woman I protest. This budget was not only amended secretly, but it’s sexist.)

During the broadcast, Alfond called the last-minute, smoke-filled-room changes “tweaks” at the end of the process. Fredette called them “largely irrelevant.”

A minute later, Alfond said “we talked about tax policy, welfare policy,” and blamed the necessity of the illegal meeting on the governor; these are not “normal times” in Augusta, he said, adding “we have to rewrite history a little bit with this governor since he has redefined what Augusta looks like.”

Whatever that means.

Would you call apparently illegal private meetings, $200 million worth of our taxpayer money, tax and welfare policy, irrelevant? Or tweaks?

Former Gov. John Baldacci weighed in later in the show, also blaming LePage by saying his budget was “too much to swallow,” and going on to say that “the leadership had to step in and take over for the members.”

Whatever that means.

So egregious was the offense of the final budget being amended by four legislators behind closed doors that Violette lamented – loudly – the significance of long-time MPBN reporter and former WGAN State House Bureau Chief Mal Leary resigning from the Legislature’s Right-to-Know Advisory Committee.

“All of these changes, which include a rewrite of the tax code, will be presented as an amendment to the budget, with no hearing or vote by the Appropriations Committee … are making us as bad as (Washington, D.C.), where votes are taken before members know what they are voting on …,” Leary said. “I have protested this travesty by resigning form the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee. I want no part of the process that excludes the public from even knowing about the proposed changes in laws that affect them.”

He was referring to the fact that the legislature was not even given the amendment-crafted budget rewrite to look at before having to vote on it, much less the public being given a chance to review it.

In the end, LePage used his line-item veto power to eliminate 64 items from the budget. They were overridden in the House with lightning speed and cheers, and sustained by the Senate. The Governor is now expected to veto the entire thing.

There is nothing to cheer here. There were only losers in this process. LePage lost his effort to give the state of Maine a fighting chance economically, every taxpayer lost the prospect of what could have been a zero-income tax state, and any legislator who took part in this sham of a process lost the trust of their constituents and party supporters.

If it is determined that right-to-know laws were broken, who will be cheering then?

Sidebar Elements

Julie McDonald-Smith lives in North Yarmouth. She is a registered nurse, former Capitol Hill staffer, development chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Committee, and occasional WGAN fill-in host for “Inside Maine” and the “WGAN Morning News with Ken and Mike.” Her column appears every other week.