There are two types of people who routinely ignore state laws:
The criminals have an excuse. By definition, it's almost impossible to practice such crafts as theft, embezzlement, and drug-dealing without violating a statute or two.
In contrast, legislators usually engage in lawbreaking simply because they can get away with it.
For example, back in 2004, Maine voters approved a referendum that required the state to pay 55 percent of the cost of local education. This annoyed members of the Legislature, who had previously made all decisions about school funding. How dare a bunch of common citizens interfere in a process based on the time-honored legislative traditions of mutual self-interest and arbitrary outbreaks of petty infighting?
Immediately after the ballots had been counted, the House and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, and the governor, also a Dem, got together to decide what to do about this unprecedented intrusion into what's laughingly referred to as the democratic process. They decided to repeal the law passed by popular initiative and substitute another measure that basically said the level of school funding would be determined by a complex set of calculations heavily influenced by mutual self-interest and arbitrary outbreaks of petty infighting.
They fought the law, and the law lost.
Since that epic battle, the state's share of education spending has never come close to 55 percent — and it never will. No elected official has the courage to vote for what that would require: either massive cuts in other state programs or a sizeable tax increase.
My point here is not to portray Democrats as arrogant, lying, immoral scum. My point is to portray all politicians as arrogant, lying, immoral scum. (I'm taking the easy route this week in filling column space.) In order to bring my argument under the big tent of bipartisanship, let's consider a similar scam currently being perpetrated by Republicans.
It's called reducing the state income tax without ever actually causing it to go down. In other words, it's a tax cut that doesn't cut taxes.
Here's how it works. A bill sponsored by Republican state Senator Jonathan Courtney of Springvale would take 20 percent of any future state surpluses and use that money to lower the income-tax rate. In theory, this process would continue until the annual tax bite was reduced from around 8 percent to 4 percent.
Sounds sweet. Too bad it isn't going to happen.
Here's the problem. As we've already seen, just because something is written in the law doesn't mean legislators have to obey it. As with school funding, they can defy the petty legalities by passing another bill saying they were just kidding the first time.
If and when surplus money shows up in state accounts, legislators will almost certainly decide there are so many pressing needs (such as — oh, I don't know — school funding, maybe) that the cash will be diverted faster than a startled taxpayer can say, "Isn't that illegal?"
It is when criminals do it. But not legislators. Because the latter group gets to change the definition of "illegal" to suit its purposes.
The phony income-tax cut isn't about obeying the law. It's about positioning Republicans for the November election. Courtney, who's running for Congress in Maine's 1st District, is already campaigning. "We can play class warfare," he announced during floor debate last month, "but I'm not afraid to cut the top tax rate. It's good policy."