Monday, March 10, 2014
Dear Gov. LePage,
Some people have suggested I not bother you right now, seeing as the Legislature just dropped its $6 billion biennial budget on your desk and the whole state is waiting breathlessly to see how you're going to handle your first truly pivotal moment as Maine's chief executive.
But as you peruse the spending package approved Thursday by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate and decide whether to veto all of it, parts of it or simply get out your ceremonial pen and sign the darned thing, I thought I might reach out to you with a few words of inspiration from an oft-quoted American cultural icon.
No, I'm not talking about the venerable Mark Twain, although he did once say, "Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest."
Nor am I invoking your fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln, who once mused, "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"
No, Governor, I'm talking about Larry the Cable Guy.
That's right, at this ever-so-delicate moment, we turn to the modern-day Everyman who's endeared himself to millions of Americans (including more than a few Mainers) with his ever-so-simple secret to success: "Get 'er done!"
I've got to tell you, Governor, that phrase has been rattling around in my head ever since I sat in on two telephone chats this week between this newspaper's editorial board and legislative leaders -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- to hear how our lawmakers managed to pass this budget without the political meltdown many had feared.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the often-passionate House minority leader, admitted that her caucus still "hates" the budget's $153 million in tax cuts because it considers the cuts too weighted toward the wealthy. That said, 52 of the House's 71 Democrats, in the end, took a deep breath and voted "aye."
"At the end of the day, there's no question that (Democrats') mark was on this budget," Cain said. "This budget has really become the Legislature's budget. I'd say it's a pretty fair balance of both sides of the political aisle."
Over on the Republican side, Rep. Patrick Flood of Winthrop -- who gets my vote as the Legislature's MVP this season for his conscientious co-chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee -- said the panel's unanimous votes on virtually all matters budgetary were, from the very beginning, by design.
"My belief was you can only do this if you trust one another," Flood said. The budget process, he added, was "not so much pitting one thing against another -- it was, 'How can we help each other?'"
Hear that, Governor? R's and D's working together, day after exhausting day, to find common ground.
How's that for gettin 'er done!
Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry spoke at length about how the Republicans, having suffered in the minority for so long, resolved early on that "we'd treat our Democratic counterparts with respect and have an inclusive budget process."
No argument there from Sen. Dawn Hill of York, the only Democratic senator on the Appropriations Committee.
The Republican majority, Hill noted, "really wanted to hear what we had to say. They really brought us to the table as full partners -- and I think that was an important role."
Make that a critical role. Without the determination by leaders on both sides to insulate this budget from the partisan skirmishes that have punctuated this session (health insurance reform, voter rights, vernal pools, to name but a few), the two-year spending package never would have sailed to enactment on votes of 123-19 by the House and 29-5 by the Senate.
Now it's your turn, Governor.
I'm afraid to even recall how, back in March, you warned that any substantive changes by the Legislature to your proposed tax cuts and your far-reaching rollbacks on state pensions and welfare benefits would be "show stoppers" -- meaning you'd exercise your veto power over the single most important piece of legislation that will ever cross your desk.
Well, no surprise, the Legislature changed all of those things. Leaving you, Governor, with three choices.
You can get out your scalpel and execute one or more line-item vetoes on portions of the budget you don't like. But you'll have to move fast -- under Maine's Constitution, your line-item-veto window remains open only through today.
I know, that sounds tempting. But keep in mind that the Legislature can override such vetoes with a simple majority vote -- less than the two-thirds it already surpassed this week. With the strains of "Kumbaya" still echoing between the House and Senate chambers, my bet is you'll end up with egg on your face.
Then there's Option 2 -- veto the entire budget and, in the process, propel the state government toward the potential nightmare of a July 1 shutdown.
That would no doubt sell a lot of newspapers, Governor. But when the smoke finally clears, you'd get most if not all of the blame for bringing the state to its knees over ... what?
"I think it will be totally on him," speculated Democratic leader Cain. "For any governor to think he can get the budget as (he) presented it -- that's just nuts."
House Speaker Robert Nutting of Oakland put it a bit more tactfully.
"He's a realist," said Nutting, who said he's discussed the matter with you. "He knew there would be compromises and I believe he understands that."
The third option is by far the best. As Cain sees it, "I think he should declare victory and throw a party."
I know, Governor, the last thing you need is advice from the "loyal opposition." Still, Cain has a point.
By signing the budget now, you can show Maine that you're a reasonable guy, that you're fast growing into this pressure cooker of a job and that you understand how government, at its best, is the product of thoughtful compromise.
So go ahead and ink that thing, Governor. I'm already working on the headline:
"Budget crisis averted: LePage, lawmakers get 'er done!"
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: