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Three cheers for sweet revenge

"I donít suppose I could appeal to your humanity and ask you to come with me and turn yourself in?"

"Humanity! Are you nuts? Iím a politician."

Reed Farrel Coleman, The James Deans

There comes a time when Democrats and Republicans must put aside their petty differences and unite to do whatís best for the people of Maine. Unfortunately, that time is scheduled for late October 2043, which is going to be a little late to save this yearís bond package.

In the meantime, itís business as usual at the State House:

Bad ideas are made worse. (Letís not sell off the state lottery to balance the budget. Letís borrow the cash, and use the lottery money to pay it back.)

Mediocre ideas are celebrated. (Dirigo Health is a big success. Even though it doesnít do anything to help people who canít afford insurance.)

Good ideas are demolished. (After you finish wiping state Senator John Martinís fingerprints off the guillotine, put University of Maine System Chancellor Joseph Westphalís head on the trash pile with his restructuring plan.)

Enough wallowing in raw cynicism. Time to shower and dress for the bond packageís funeral.

No need to rush, though. The bonds arenít quite dead. But they are on life support, and itís unlikely Congress will pass a special law forcing legislators to reconnect them to the state feeding tube. How did these poor bonds end up in a persistent vegetative state? Hereís a little history.

Bonds are the way government borrows money for long-term projects, such as roads, parks, and convincing John Martin the university system needs to be consolidated. In order to get the lowest interest rate, bonds must be backed by what lawyers call the full faith and credit of the state, which means the bond package has to be passed by two-thirds votes in the state House and Senate and win approval of the voters.

In recent years, the state has issued $130 million to $150 million in bonds annually to clean up hazardous waste, preserve land for public use, and build the Joseph Westphal Center for the Study of Political Ineptitude. But in 2004, things started to go wrong.

It began with the state budget, which is usually passed as emergency legislation, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Last year, Republicans refused to back the spending plan unless it included more cuts and fewer gimmicks. In response, majority Democrats approved the budget without GOP support (but also without the required two-thirds vote), then adjourned the Legislature so it would take effect before the start of the new fiscal year.

Angry Republicans got their revenge when legislators returned in special session to consider a bond package. Democrats wanted to borrow about $120 million. The GOP said it would go no higher than $40 million. After months of partisan wrangling, the bond package died.

Both sides immediately recognized this situation could have severe negative consequences for the economy and the environment. So they patched up their differences and approved a responsible borrowing plan.

No, wait. Thatís the booze talking. What really happened was the two parties used the stalemate as a campaign issue, each accusing the other of being the obstructionist. Apparently, both sides were happy with the way that worked out, because theyíre doing it again. The Dems passed this yearís budget, including nearly $450 million in borrowing, without GOP support. And Republicans are again preparing to veto any bonding.

"The $450 million gives Republicans cover to say no," said one GOP strategist. "And a lot of them will. Theyíre really angry about the way the budget was handled."

So thatís that. Well, not quite.

Last year, there would have been sufficient GOP support to pass bonds for highways (the companies that build roads and bridges are mostly owned by Republicans) and public lands (always popular with voters). But Democrats didnít want to separate those issues from the rest of the package because that would have allowed the GOP to control how much borrowing got approved. So the Dems presented the entire $120 million in bonds for a single up-or-down vote. As expected, it lost, and both sides had their campaign issue.

This year, the situation is much the same. Democratic Governor John Baldacci is pushing a $200-million bond package, with money for highways and parks, but also including funding for the university system (does John Martin know about this?), research and development, Indian housing, National Guard armories, hospices, and removing dangerous chemicals from high-school labs. Some Republicans still might be willing to support borrowing for transportation and public lands, but not the other stuff.

Itíll be up to the Democrats to determine how much of a role politics will play as to whether the bonds are presented as separate items ó some of which might pass ó or a single package ó which wonít.

Itíll be up to the GOP to determine how much revenge itís got to have.

Lend me your opinion by emailing ishmaelia@gwi.net

The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.

Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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