2017-07-13 / Editorial

Shutdown brought DC-style politics to Maine

Beyond the Headlines
by Sen. Justin Chenette

The only bill out of the near 2,000 submitted that we must write and pass in the Maine Legislature is the budget, which outlines the operation of state government and services for the following two years. This year, we finally passed a budget on the Fourth of July, four days into a dangerous and unnecessary government shutdown.

In the end, the budget includes an increase in education spending of $162 million over the previous budget cycle. That’s only about half of what voters approved through Question 2, but it’s still a real boost for our schools. In fact, it’s the largest one time investment in education in our state’s history. This was only possible because of using the referendum as leverage in what I consider a rather-flawed, non-transparent negotiation process.

The Homestead Property Tax Exemption will grow by 33 percent this year, saving homeowners millions on property tax bills. Addressing ever-increasing property taxes has been a top priority for Democrats this entire session. And we’ve invested additional state resources into job training programs at the community colleges. We protected funding for hospitals and public health, both of which were on the chopping block in Gov. LePage’s original budget proposal back in January. We also removed the governor’s proposal to start taxing our haircuts, lawn care, snow removal, gym memberships and other services used by middle class families and seniors.

I’m glad the budget is passed and more importantly the manufactured crisis of the shutdown is over. But the events that brought us to that point, and what I saw during the shutdown, were the most disgusting that I’ve seen during my time in Augusta. The people who orchestrated it should be ashamed for the way they jeopardized the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Maine families, not to mention our state’s economy, in service of their petty, partisan political goals. The Legislature didn’t wait until the last minute on the budget, one group of legislators and the governor weren’t negotiating in good faith in the many months we took combing through every aspect of the budget and voting out individual pieces. Keep in mind the state budget is more than 800 pages long. It’s important that each policy is debated in public and to allow a chance for the public to weigh in on its impact. That’s why it takes a few months to get to a place of even voting on the budget.

It started with a vote on a budget compromise that had won the support of every Democrat and Independent in the Legislature, as well as Republicans in the Maine Senate. I held out to the very end as I told my leadership in the Senate, I was a no vote. I didn’t want to give up all that we had worked so hard to achieve. I was against this so-called compromise because I thought we gave away too much. This was drawn up in private between two legislators, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau. This latest version of the budget ignored the will of the voters by cutting education funding to pay for tax cuts for the rich, the exact opposite of what voters demanded in November when they passed a referendum to make the wealthy pay a little bit more so that we could finally fully fund our schools.

Frankly, I was furious that the results of the referendum were overturned. I spent the first five months of the year fighting to protect Question 2 as current law as the Senate Lead Democrat on the Taxation Committee. I was on the frontlines of this debate. Every step of the way working hand in hand with the Maine Education Association that brought the question to the ballot to ensure we get something. They also understood the dilemma ahead of us in divided government where the Blaine House and the Senate were run by the Republicans and the House is barely Democratic. The prospect of a shutdown was even worse than this budget. On June 30, I had a choice: Vote for the budget, or for the shutdown. I voted in favor of the compromise budget despite strong opposition to the content itself. It literally made me sick to my stomach. It was against everything I believed. I knew that the real pain and hardship that would come from a government shutdown was something I couldn’t let happen.

A state government shutdown delays or makes unavailable state services, from routine business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to more critical programs within the Office of Child and Family Services and the Department of Labor. It leaves 12,000 Maine workers locked out of work or forced to work without pay, including state employees and contractors such as road crews, placing on their families the uncertainty and pain of not knowing when or how they’ll be able to pay their bills. Each day of a shutdown costs the state’s economy at least $2.5 million, which in the middle of tourist season would be devastating.

My vote was against the shutdown. But the shutdown came anyway, when 60 members of the House of Representatives – all Republicans – voted against the budget. After giving them basically everything they wanted in overturning Question 2, they had a new set of demands. Those demands changed every day, but all of them represented policy changes proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that had already been rejected by the Legislature.

The governor was willing to hold the state hostage if he didn’t get his way through his legislative pawns known as the House Republicans. They didn’t care about the harm the shutdown would cause. They didn’t care about respecting the will of the voters. They didn’t care about investing in education. In fact if they had their way we wouldn’t make any investments in education as they believed we shouldn’t respect the first referendum vote back in 2004 of reaching 55 percent of share of education funding coming from the state. They put their allegiance to their party and to the governor ahead of our state and its people. It was DC-style partisanship at its worst.

Four days after the shutdown began, they agreed to a new version of the budget that eliminated a one-and-ahalf cent increase in the lodging tax paid by tourists. In exchange, Democrats secured additional funding for Head Start, and a rule prohibiting LePage from cutting services for children and adults with severe mental illness – a population whose health and independence has been hurt by the governor’s cuts in the past.

This is not good governance however you slice it. This debacle has soured my view of the process that clearly needs major reforms. It’s sad that the divisions we haveonly increased to toxic levels this legislative session. I really tried my best to fight for the will of the voters, respect the referendum results, and push for a pragmatic, progressive outcome. We clearly need to win back the Senate and the Blaine House before common sense can return.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.

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