Maine was just beginning to enter the dog days of summer, politically speaking, at least. The national party conventions were over, and the Legislature was out of session for the year (barring any surprise special sessions). Then a leaked memo outlining Gov. Paul LePage’s priorities for what will be his last biennial budget sharply refocused attention on state politics.
In a sense, there was nothing new about the revelations: LePage has made it clear throughout his time in office that he wants to reduce the state payroll, decrease state spending, and further cut taxes. The idea that he intends to continue to pursue these priorities in his last two years in office shouldn’t be a galloping shock to any observers.
However, what is interesting is the timing of the news and the linking of the three issues. It would seem that, after his tax-shift plan went down in flames during the last Legislature, LePage has returned to his roots. Rather than meddling in the state’s tax revenue formulation, he is now proposing to pay for a tax cut with a spending cut — a plan that is appealing in its simplicity.
As with any budget proposal rolled out by a governor, however, the devil will be in the details. The administration has said that the elimination of positions will be focused on vacant and limited-period positions; however, even that practical approach immediately ran into a buzz-saw of opposition from labor union officials. Unfortunately, that was to be expected; unions have shown an inherent unwillingness to discuss reducing the size of state government. Whether the leak was intended or not, it creates a number of potential advantages for the LePage administration as the fall campaign begins.
For the administration, the leaked memo can be considered a “soft opening” to the budget discussion that will begin in earnest after the elections. The focus of attention on fiscal issues should help Republican candidates across the state — at least those who are serious about cutting spending and cutting taxes. It will energize activists who want another chance to reduce the footprint of state government before LePage leaves office, and it may help unify the party.
An early beginning to the state budget discussion puts serious pressure on legislative candidates in both parties. Too many candidates vaguely campaign on reducing taxes and creating jobs without offering any real ideas to do so. For the candidates who make these promises, yet opposed both LePage’s tax plan last session and cutting spending, the onus should be on them to explain what taxes they would cut and how they would go about doing it.
It will make life especially difficult for Democratic candidates who claim to be moderate largely by avoiding, or appearing to compromise on, a few hot-button issues while refusing to admit that state government is too large. When push comes to shove, these candidates will largely toe the party line on the fiscal issues, tossing the taxpayers under the bus. They’re trying to skate by on empty promises and an easy smile, but that shouldn’t be enough in a state with serious issues that need to be addressed.
LePage has been able to accomplish quite a bit over the past six years, but the leaked memo shows he’s not done yet, and that’s good to see. It’s important to remember that amid all the noise of a busy election year, we’ll need to return to governing after November. This fall, Mainers will face a choice between legislative candidates who are serious about reducing the size of government and helping taxpayers and those who are using empty rhetoric to mask their defense of the status quo. Let’s hope they choose wisely.