Monday, December 9, 2013
By Steve Mistler firstname.lastname@example.org
State House Bureau
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 be 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. John 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 railed 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 Democratic-led Legislature.
The piece ran last 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 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.
The Maine Ethics Commission will propose some changes that will affect election laws.
Director Jonathan Wayne said the commission plans to submit legislation that will strengthen the disclosure requirements for the primary decision makers for political action committees and campaign committees. The proposal stems from last summer's controversy involving former Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Hermon, who had been accused by the Maine Democratic Party of breaking the law prohibiting candidates from using PAC funds to help their individual campaigns.
Farnham was listed as the primary decision maker on the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC, which spent heavily on Farnham's race with Democratic Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick. She was exonerated after claiming that she forgot she was the primary decision maker for the PAC.
Skeptics say that excuse didn't wash, but the Ethics Commission said it was highly unlikely that Farnham knew or initiated some of the ads that ran against Gratwick.
Wayne said that the new disclosure, which will include additional filing requirements and a sworn statement by the decision maker, is designed to remove the possibility that someone could forget, purposely or otherwise, that they're the ones responsible for the PAC or campaign's activities.
Also on the PAC front, Wayne said the commission will change the reporting period for PACs during the final days before an election. Currently, PACs file reports 11 days prior to Election Day but don't have to file another report until 42 days after the election. Critics have said the reporting gap makes it easier for PACs to exceed contribution limits with no penalty until after the election is decided, and that it's less transparent.
Wayne said the commission will propose 24-hour reports during the final days before an election.
STATE OF THE STATE
LePage will give his State of the State address at 7 p.m. Feb. 5. The governor will deliver his remarks to a joint session of the Legislature in the House chamber.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
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