Many people believe the Maine Legislature is ineffective because it’s run by a bunch of idiots. That’s not true.
It’s actually run by three bunches of idiots.
There are the liberals, the conservatives, and the boneheads.
To understand how this tripartite system works — or doesn’t — consider the debate on taxes during the recently concluded legislative session, a process that resulted in absolutely nothing happening. Liberals argued for tax reform, but opposed cuts in spending. Conservatives pushed spending cuts, but refused to consider tax reform. And boneheads wanted taxes to go down and spending to go up.
State Senator Joe Perry of Bangor, co-chair of the Taxation Committee, spoke on behalf of the libs in an op-ed piece in the Bangor Daily News: “Some have said why not just cut government to provide the tax relief. In this year’s budget cycle, we did. [We interrupt Senator Perry to note that on his planet, the word “cut” apparently means something different than on Earth. The two-year budget passed by the Legislature increased spending by a half-billion dollars. Now back to Senator Perry’s extraterrestrial rationale.] While cuts were made, the more sensible approach for our state is to rebalance our tax code.”
Conservatives made it clear that whatever the liberals were proposing, they were against it. State Representative James Campbell of Newfield, incensed at the prospect of a sales tax on purchases of coffins, stood up during floor debate and cried, “Shame, shame, shame.” That sort of commentary used to be limited to discussions of abortion and gay rights.
Speaking for the boneheads was somebody who should have had a role in the process, but didn’t: Governor John Baldacci. “This [tax bill] has got to have broad support, not just bipartisan support,” Baldacci told the Capitol News Service. “We have got to have both parties working at this.” Er, governor, that word, “bipartisan,” it means, uh ... never mind.
Tax policy wasn’t the only issue on which liberals, conservatives, and boneheads couldn’t agree. They also failed to deal with the rising cost of health care. Liberals wanted a government-run, universal plan. Conservatives supported a free-market system. And boneheads backed DirigoChoice, which combines the worst aspects of both.
On the environment, liberals supported legislation preventing construction near sensitive coastal areas. Conservatives pushed for building anything anywhere. And boneheads advocated for protecting natural resources, so long as that didn’t affect their home districts, where endangered industries could still pollute, and endangered species could still be eaten.
There was, however, one issue on which libs, cons, and bones found common ground. Liberals have always believed the best way to create a more honest Legislature was through public campaign financing. Less money grubbing, they argued, equaled less corruption. Conservatives pushed for a smaller Legislature. Fewer legislators, they argued, equaled fewer corrupt legislators. And boneheads are fond of term limits. Getting rid of all legislators faster, they argued, equaled getting rid of corrupt legislators faster. But the three blocs spoke with a united voice on the issue of ethics reform.
They were against it.
Last year, legislative leaders created a blue-ribbon panel to examine ethical issues and recommend improvements. This committee proposed some modest changes, including allowing ordinary citizens to file ethics complaints against legislators, expanding the definition of conflict of interest, and banning lawmakers from doing private business with state agencies their committees oversee.