Wednesday, March 12, 2014
On Maine Politics
At a glance, it would appear that Gov. Paul LePage used his weekly radio address to double-down on his $6.2 billion, two-year budget proposal.
Or was it a double-dare?
There seems to widespread belief among Republicans and Democrats that the governor's proposal to save more than $200 million by suspending municipal aid for two years is dead on arrival.
However, LePage went to great lengths during his radio address to justify the proposal. He blasted a "self-serving" analysis by the Maine Municipal Association, saying the organization representing the state's towns and cities didn't mention that previous Legislatures had pulled money from the program to balance the state's budget. (Actually, the MMA did note that fact in its analysis, saying former Gov. Baldacci and two previous Legislatures had "raided" revenue sharing to the tune of $40 million.)
LePage also argued that local governments have spurned savings initiatives by failing to consolidate services. For the most part, he's right about that. Bold plans to share emergency services have rarely been embraced by local communities, which are reluctant to part with their own fire or police departments.
"It is not impossible for local government to save money, consolidate services and identify priorities," LePage said. "If revenue sharing makes up as little as 2 to 4 percent of community budgets, it is reasonable to request local officials to find alternatives. These are difficult times, we must work together to move Maine forward."
LePage also noted that Democrats -- whom he dubbed "the loyal opposition" -- have been railing against his budget plan, but have offered no solutions or counterproposals.
There is some speculation among Republicans and Democrats alike that the governor's budget plan, particularly the revenue-sharing piece, is intentionally a nonstarter. Essentially, they argue, LePage is challenging lawmakers, Democrats in particular, to balance the budget without suspending or repealing the $400 million tax cut package passed by lawmakers in 2011.
As the governor noted in his radio address, lawmakers don't have many other alternatives that won't lead to additional reductions in social service programs or education, the two biggest cost drivers in the state budget.
From a purely strategic perspective, it's better for the LePage administration if the Democrats who control the Legislature make those tough choices, rather than the governor.
The New York Times visited the State House recently to document the icy relationship between LePage and the Democrat-led Legislature. The piece ran Tuesday and is basically an overview of all the daily events that have been reported since Democrats came into power: the Democratic tracker that LePage says led him to call off his scheduled meeting with party leaders, the dinner invitation by Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the governor's recent blow-up during a meeting with independent lawmakers, etc.
The story does raise the prospect that the standoff, and the governor's controversial budget proposal, could lead to a government shutdown if lawmakers are unable to forge a compromise on the state's next two-year spending plan.
The potential for a shutdown also appeared to be on the minds of the Fitch ratings agency when it downgraded the state's bond rating Tuesday. The agency cited numerous factors for the downgrade in its analysis, but it mentioned -- twice -- a "contentious" atmosphere among the decision makers in Augusta, specifically the chasm between the Democrats and the governor over his budget.
Politically, a shutdown would appear to be a worst-case scenario for Democrats, particularly as it relates to the 2014 governor's race. Gridlock, or a government shutdown, would seemingly strengthen the presumed candidacy of Eliot Cutler, an independent.
The prospect of a shutdown would also seem to bolster the bargaining position of the Republican legislative minority, whose support will be needed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to overcome LePage's veto power.
(Continued on page 2)