Over the weekend and into Monday, as leaders of the four party caucuses in the Maine Legislature finalized the details of their budget deal before rushing it to a vote Tuesday, no public notice was given of any meetings. No recorded votes were taken. We have no idea what was said in the party caucuses. Legislators were given the document only hours before it was sent to the floor of the Maine House for a vote, and one was apparently told by a staffer that he couldn’t see the budget, but lobbyists could (perhaps he should have asked them, rather than the civil servants who work for us, for a copy he could peruse).
If not a technical, legal violation of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), it was at least a blatant trampling of its spirit. The real casualty of this last-minute deal was not any priorities of either party, but Maine democracy, which was severely harmed by the secretive nature of the budget process. Now, this is not to say that the budget process is not usually entirely transparent: that’s far from the case. Party caucuses in committees are normal, as are off-the-record leadership negotiations, but not usually to this extent — and it’s questionable whether they should ever be used.
When it enacted the Freedom of Access Act, the Maine Legislature intended to shine the light of public scrutiny on the legislative process and government at all levels. Deliberations over bills were supposed to be conducted in the open, so the public would have a chance to offer their input on what was being said. This session’s last-minute budget negotiations sidestepped these requirements entirely, and to such a dramatic extent that the Maine Legislature might as well have had a concurrent vote to repeal FOAA in its entirety.
The Legislature is supposed to represent the people of the state of Maine, but how can they do that when the people don’t even know what’s happening? How can they do that when lobbyists are informed of the content of legislation before they are? How can they do that when their own leaders forbid them from telling the people what’s going on? The answer is, they can’t. At that point, the Legislature ceases to be the tool of the people, and it is truly run by the special interest groups. These groups live in the shadows, and they thrive on secrecy.
The truth is, the Legislature should be more transparent than the minimum standard required by FOAA. All negotiations should be done in public, on microphone, so that the people of the state can hear how their tax dollars are being spent. There should never be any private votes ahead of floor or committee votes. We deserve to know how legislation is being drafted and decisions are made, not be kept out of the loop thanks to a secretive process.
With this budget, legislators themselves were short-changed by the last-minute negotiations, not just the public. They had a gigantic amendment to the budget foisted on them at the last minute, mere hours before the vote. Any time any amendment more than a page or two long is introduced, it should be visible to the public for at least 72 hours before any votes are taken.
These basic steps would ensure that what happened with the current biennial budget — which, no matter your opinion on its contents, is a travesty because of the process — never happens again. After this mess, the Legislature will have much work to do to restore the confidence that the people of Maine once had in them. Let’s hope they’re up to it.