Political analysts and former state senators Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman discuss the state budget.

Ethan: In the flash of an eye, the state budget went from turmoil to passage.

Phil: Less the flash of an eye, and more the darkness of a formerly smokey back room in the State House. Welcome to how sausage, otherwise known as Maine law, should not be made.

Ethan: Tell me about it. Four guys in a room negotiating a deal that transforms $250 million of our tax code with no public participation, no public hearing and virtually no time for the press to report and analyze it.

Phil: A new standard for Kremlin-like secrecy. Mal Leary, the well-respected reporter beginning in the Longley era, and member of the Legislature’s Right-To-Know committee, resigned in protest.

Ethan: And even Rep. Peggy Rotundo, longtime Democratic chairwoman of Appropriations, said she had never seen anything like it. Perhaps worst of all, that secret sausage was then force fed to the members of the Legislature, with no time for real debate about whether it was healthy for Maine people.

Phil: When I was up there, the House deregulated the entire utility industry “under the hammer” with no debate and no official vote. But at least there was a public hearing and everyone could read the bill ahead of time.

Ethan: While we can bemoan the lack of transparency forever, how about we give some insight into whether the final product was good or bad for Maine?

Phil: And, ultimately, whether we would sign it were we governor.

Ethan: Will I be answering that last question as if I was Gov. Paul LePage or Gov. Ethan Strimling?

Phil: Governor Strimling. Certainly no one expects you to think like Gov. LePage.

Ethan: As if anyone could ever think like LePage.

Phil: Is this budget good for Maine? Well, if you believe that growing government by $300 million worth of taxpayer money is good for Maine, then you would have to say it was a resounding success.

Ethan: Well, as you know, I am less impressed by size and more impressed by quality. What I like about the new spending is that it goes toward school funding for our kids, revenue sharing for our municipalities, property tax relief in an expanded Homestead Exemption and increased funding for higher ed. That spending will improve Maine’s future and provide much-needed relief to the middle class.

Phil: I wish the Homestead Exemption went to the taxpayer instead of sending it to town hall where they will simply spend more, but I do like the income tax cut. All things considered, since LePage was elected, Republicans and Democrats have now pushed through more than half a billion dollars worth of income tax cuts for Maine people every two years.

Ethan: The problem is that those cuts have mostly benefited the wealthy, while transferring much of the new burden to the middle class and low-income.

Phil: According to Democratic press releases, 75 percent of the tax cut targets “middle- and low-income families.” How is that a cut for the wealthiest?

Ethan: The magic of political spin. While I understand my colleagues trying to put a happy face on this, Democrats are claiming households making between $90,000 and $130,000 per year are “middle income.” Perhaps that is true in New York City or San Francisco, but if you are earning that much in Maine, you are better off than 80 percent of Maine people.

Phil: Really? If you think making $90,000 is “the wealthiest'” you need to see the bigger picture. Compared to other centers of economic engines, we should strive to make that the median income here for a family.

Ethan: I agree that making $90K the median income would be awesome, but back in the real world families making $30K, $40K, $50K, $60K or $70K could sure use the help more than those making $130K. But, this is what happens when you slice the top income tax rate and cut the estate tax for multi-millionaires.

Phil: Sigh. Anything else you wish to complain about with the budget?

Ethan: Glad you asked. While the tax revisions are disappointing, the truly inhumane part of the budget is the failure to provide assistance to asylees. Legal residents of our state, not allowed by federal immigration laws to work, are now completely cut off from desperately needed aid. We are talking upward of a thousand people in Portland possibly being pushed to the street.

Phil: Look on the bright side. More disabled people on the waiting list for services will now get help and nursing homes will be better funded to care and comfort our elderly. Additionally, people on welfare will glide down the cliff, rather than being pushed off, as they move out of poverty.

Ethan: Yes, that last policy change is very good and a long time coming. Plus, I am pleased that our nursing homes and wait lists for the disabled will be shortened. But pitting one group of vulnerable people against another is not a healthy way to design public policy. So, Governor Harriman — sign or veto?

Phil: I’m going to emulate LePage and look for line-item spending that can be removed to bring the $300 million in new spending back in check. But then I would sign what was left. How about you, Governor Strimling?

Ethan: I would line-item veto the top income tax rate reduction (leave it at 7.95 percent) and line-item veto the estate tax cut for multi-millionaires, and then sign the rest.

Phil: And then, when the Legislature reconvenes for the second regular session in January they will take up an “emergency” bill to fix all the problems created with this last-minute, dark of night, no-longer-smokey-back-room budget.

Phil Harriman is a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling is a former Democratic state senator from Portland. They can be contacted on Facebook at Agree to Disagree or Twitter: @senpeh and @ethan6_2.

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