The (veto) pen is mightier than the sword

The ability to say no.

This is a trait almost entirely missing from most elected officials, yet it is probably the single most important thing they could bring to the table.

Saying no is especially important for executives, like governors.  All too often, short sighted or politically timid legislators will intentionally approve things they don’t even believe in, so that they can avoid having to explain difficult votes.  Such is the nature of most “go along to get along” legislators in this country.

In these situations, often the governor is the last thing standing between those lawmakers and their terrible ideas being enacted into law.  It is for this reason that I look for and respect the capacity to say no.

In the case of Governor Paul LePage, it is one of his most redeeming characteristics.  It has been a long time since Maine had a governor so willing to soberly decline seemingly non-controversial bills, simply because he doesn’t believe they are prudent or responsible.

Thursday, the Maine legislature met to consider LePage’s veto of four bills: LD1469, LD807, LD225, and LD1781.  The overwhelming theme of these vetoes was a rejection of bonding, or as we in the business  like to call it, “debt”.

Fundamentally at issue is the state’s recurring habit of acquiring new debt by bonding for things, such as research and development.  Debt secured by Maine’s full faith, credit, and taxing power is roughly 500 million dollars, not including interest.

That debt is always justified by the wonderful things that incurring it will supposedly produce, some of which is, in fact, true.  But, as we should all know from our personal finances, the trouble with debt is that you are forcing your future self to pay for priorities of the past, rather than current needs, and making it more difficult to make ends meet in the future.

Put another way, every year in Maine’s budget, millions upon millions of dollars must be paid to service the debt we piled up in the past, paying for roads that have long since crumbled and been repaved, and paying for priorities that are no longer priorities, instead of paying for what needs to be paid for today.

Imagine a world in which Maine had no debt to pay.   It would probably feel an awful lot like paying off all your credit cards, and finally being able to live on what you earn, while having more money at the end of the month due to having retired your outstanding balances.  As somebody who has done that, I can tell you it is a nice feeling.

Instead of having to pay millions of dollars every year to service debt, Maine could pay millions of dollars every year to immediately pave new roads.  It could pay millions of dollars for research and development this year, and not have to worry about it in future years.  It could stop paying millions of dollars of interest, which is the very essence of flushing money down the toilet.

Such an arrangement would allow Maine to break the chains of bond debt, and truly pay as it goes for today’s priorities.  Or put more simply, it would help make Maine a responsible steward of its tax dollars.

Sadly, critical as it may be, this is not something that legislatures typically care to take a stand on.  Kicking the can down the road is among the easiest things for them to do, because by the time their decisions become a problem, most if not all lawmakers will be termed out.

Nor do voters have the long-term view about responsible debt.  Any bonding question that goes in front of them is typically approved easily, as the proposed benefit is all that is on their mind, rather than the decades long price tag.

Paul LePage cannot single handedly rid the state of debt, nor could he even begin to do so in his one – or potentially two – terms in office.  But he is insistent about working toward a much more responsible philosophy about debt, which is why he took out his veto pen and rejected those bills.

So to me, when it is so easy to ignore the repercussions of debt, I’m glad to finally have a governor who is comfortable saying no.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.