Budget brinksmanship

We’re getting a tad close to the wire, don’t you think?

If a budget deal isn’t struck, and soon, we’re in some trouble. Maine lawmakers must come to an agreement by June 30, else the state will face a government shutdown under the Maine Constitution.

The current battles playing out between the Republican governor and Democrats in Augusta are reminiscent of the battles between Gov. Jock McKernan and Democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Time heals all wounds, it seems, but anyone who lived through the McKernan years remembers well the animosity present in Augusta 20 years ago.

People forget it today when they describe Gov. Paul LePage’s firm negotiating style and no-holds-barred philosophy on governing as though it were something unique to Maine politics. It isn’t.

If anything, the past was a great deal more acrimonious than things are today. In 1991, state government froze in its place, and Maine experienced a government shutdown.

The cake was baked before the legislative battles had even begun.

The relationship between McKernan and his Legislature had deteriorated. The collaberation between the parties within the State House had decayed, and partisanship was polarized to a degree far in advance of what we see today.

The disaster that was the state’s workers’ compensation system — a problem begging to be dealt with for years — was lurking over both the state budget and Maine businesses.

Lawmakers were forced to deal with a state government with revenues in freefall, with no immediate hope of recovery.

Ask a Republican, and they will blame the inflexible, partisan, poisonous leadership of Speaker John Martin, who had no interest in compromising with the mostly moderate McKernan. Instead, he seemed to revel in poking his finger in McKernan’s eye, sending him extremely partisan bills he knew would be vetoed, and refusing to be a partner in any kind of real government reform.

Ask a Democrat, and they will likely blame McKernan and the Republican senators led by Charlie Webster, who refused to budge and ultimately forced a shutdown as a way of forcing revisions to Maine workers’ compensation.

Regardless of who was at fault, the real point was that the two sides were far apart; they had a terrible working relationship; deadlines began to approach; and nothing productive was happening.

Soon, the attention of state government turned from crafting a compromise to the dramatics of realizing that they were out of time.

McKernan issued an emergency order to deal with the eventualities of a shutdown; a last minute, one-year stopgap budget was offered (and vetoed); and protests began to erupt in the State House and governor’s office.

Despite Martin’s theatrical declarations that he would not be “blackmailed” regarding workers’ compensation, McKernan and company refused to back down, and after 16 days of intense negotiations the Legislature adopted a budget and ended the shutdown.

Looking back, it is hard to contest that McKernan and his allies won that battle and that Maine has been much better off for it. That compromise budget contained much of the workers’ compensation reform package pushed by the governor, with the rest of the eventual reforms coming from an appointed commission later.

Martin’s apocalyptic predictions about what reform would mean never came true, and there is almost universal agreement today that reform was both necessary and extremely beneficial for the state.

Today, June has begun, and there is still no deal. Republicans and Democrats are still having difficulty reaching a compromise. LePage is insisting that taxes not be raised, hospital debt be repaid and that the expansion of Medicaid would be a mistake. Democrats are insisting quite the opposite.

Once again, Maine has a Republican governor demanding fiscal sanity and reform, facing off against an opposition party interested in the same tired agenda we have seen for decades in Augusta. Once again, they are far apart. Once again the deadline is fast approaching, and if a compromise isn’t struck, we will soon move from dealmaking to panic.

Yet, hope remains. For all of LePage’s reputation, he has a much better relationship with his Legislature than McKernan had. Democrats in the Legislature, though containing some unhelpful, very Martin-like creatures such as Senate President Justin Alfond, are a great deal more reasonable and interested in coming up with a solution than their counterparts from two decades past.

The sides may be far apart and may even come down to the wire on a budget, but the same poison we saw in 1991 doesn’t seem to be present today.

Let us all hope that Augusta proves it learned its lesson 20 years ago.

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.