LePage and House Republicans win the shutdown showdown

It is hard to argue that this government shutdown didn’t yield positive results.

The last budget approved by Maine lawmakers over the governor’s veto in 2015, contained $6.7 billion in spending, which, if you recall, was a bloated “compromise” budget that spent hundreds of millions of dollars more than its predecessor.

LePage’s proposal for this budget represented a marginal increase to $6.8 billion.

That figure, incidentally, proves why each budget is so important, as the spending figures passed each biennium create new baselines for future budgets. Fluff built upon fluff.

The final budget this year came in at roughly $7.1 billion. This, predictably, contained hundreds of millions of dollars of additional spending.

The final version is pretty disappointing, and was not visionary, transformative or strategic. That said, it is a hell of a lot better than it could have been, and that is largely thanks to the combination of Gov. Paul LePage and the House Republican caucus.

Representatives watch the voting board as they voted on the budget bill in the Maine House of Representatives on Monday afternoon. Gabor Degre | BDN

LePage submitted his original budget in January, and almost immediately it seemed that legislative leaders had decided that the document was irrelevant.

That is, of course, their prerogative, but if they were going to ignore the governor’s proposal, it was incumbent upon them to get to work building their own sooner rather than later.

They chose later, and the process languished for six months, producing a whole lot of nothing. Faced with a dwindling clock, the decision was made to set up a legislative super committee to negotiate a final deal.

That committee’s existence, makeup, and methodology was the spark that lit the fire of a shut down. It shut out two legislative leaders, House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, and Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, and the one House Republican who was given a seat, Rep. Tom Windsor, saw his opinion and that of his caucus repeatedly dismissed.

The rules of the committee basically allowed the two Republican senators and two Democratic House members on the committee to create the compromise. I think the assumption was ultimately that the rest of the Legislature would simply say, “I guess this is what we have to live with.”

But House Republicans were not going to have their input, and that of the governor, ignored, and objected to what the committee ultimately produced.

Indeed, it was the breakdown between the House and Senate Republicans — whose members and staff were actively warring with each other during the process — that ultimately doomed the deal and guaranteed a shutdown.

That breakdown limited the leverage Republicans could wield, but in one key area, their unity and strength did pay important dividends. The Senate Republicans, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau in particular, deserve a lot of praise for being very strong and very insistent that the 3 percent surcharge be eliminated.

And the strength of that position, combined with similar strength in the House caucus and with LePage, is what ultimately helped get rid of the most damaging tax hike in Maine history. They deserve our thanks for that resolve.

If that unity been present throughout other issues — spending, other taxes, education — there is no telling what could have been accomplished this year.

Instead the committee produced a deal, and the House Republicans were told by some of their colleagues that they needed to vote for it, because it was the best deal possible.

That tax increase was necessary, they said. The governor himself had proposed the lodging tax hike, they said. This was the deal, and if not this one, another might not be possible, they said.

They heard all that, and they said no.

No, the tax increase was actually not necessary to balance the budget. No, LePage didn’t propose a tax increase — his lodging tax increase was in a budget that essentially froze spending and had net tax reductions, which is an important difference. No, this wasn’t the only deal possible.

In the end, because of that refusal to accept tax increases, Speaker Sara Gideon had to come to the table and negotiate with LePage and the House Republicans. They eliminated the tax, and the shutdown was over.

The budget they passed is still terrible, but in the end it is quite a bit less terrible. That is a direct result of some very brave lawmakers in the House saying no, enduring brutal heckling, vandalism of their vehicles and general intimidation, and sticking together to demand something better.

Next time, I hope the Republicans learn this lesson and work together, rather than against each other. Maybe then the budget they ultimately pass will be worthy of praise.

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.