January 30, 2012
Last spring, Maine’s Legislature passed a biennium budget with a two-thirds majority. How is that possible, given the partisan nature of budgetary priorities? What is the likely fate of the supplemental budget being discussed this week?
I have often said that the legislative process can work effectively within the committee structure and that it does not work well on the floor of the House. In essence, when a committee (generally thirteen people) meets to find solutions to problems, they learn to welcome the various perspectives each member brings to the discussion because the final product of policy will have to work with the entire public, which, itself, has diverse interests. In contrast to committee work, when one hundred fifty one people take turns arguing about the proposed solution to a problem, the result is an entrenchment of positions, and a growing disrespect for some of the (ridiculous) arguments presented. I have observed that less than one vote is changed for every three hours of floor debate.
Last spring, the Appropriations Committee worked on the (FY12-13) budget starting from the Governor’s proposal. Although the Governor submits a recommendation (advancing the administration’s policies), the Legislature has the responsibility (and authority) to define the state’s budget.
A budget could be passed with a simple majority if completed in time. There is a potentially heavy political price to pay for a majority budget (which would accentuate the partisan divides) by making one party responsible for the outcome -- which never has enough money for desirable programs, and always relies on taxes that are too high. Of course, each of us has differing views on which programs are desirable and which taxes are not. So a two-thirds budget is a “shared responsibility budget” wherein we all, of both parties, take responsibility for both the good and bad aspects of the final product.
The outcome, last spring, was acceptable to more than two-thirds of us: Democrats were able to prevent severe cuts to some programs they wanted and Republicans were able to achieve some tax cuts they wanted.
Now, the Appropriations committee is considering a supplemental budget request from the Governor which contains only cuts to the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS). Two immediate difficulties appear: the timing of the request has been delayed by the inability of non-partisan legislative staff to get information about how the department has been run this past year, and the massive proposed cuts (over two hundred million dollars) sit on the table alone, preventing the committee members with flexibility to find common ground.
In my assessment, there cannot be a two-thirds acceptable outcome from this situation. The DHHS shortfall is not due to either increased enrollment in MaineCare (about six percent of the shortfall) nor consumer fraud (an insignificant percentage of the shortfall). I will not be voting in favor of penalizing our elderly and infirm for the mismanagement of the department. Other solutions will have to be found.
--Ralph Chapman 326-0899 Rep. Chapman or Rep. Ralph Chapman