Hopes weren’t high for the current legislative session, but even the most modest expectations have been dashed. The trouble started with a seemingly obscure bill to “conform” Maine’s tax code with federal changes.

The dysfunction in Washington is even greater than the dysfunction in Augusta, and so it was that tax changes for 2015 weren’t approved, almost retroactively, until late December, leaving states that “piggyback” the federal tax code, like Maine, in a bind.

Maine conforms to most federal tax provisions, but not all. In most years, approval of a basic list would have been relatively routine, but not this year.

Primary responsibility for the mishaps, as it must in our system, falls squarely with Gov. Paul LePage. He could have called a meeting with legislative leaders to figure out how a conformity bill could be enacted in the first weeks of the session, but that’s not LePage’s method. He’s so uninvolved in his work that the last two biennial budgets were passed over his veto, and he didn’t even submit a supplemental budget this year, while frequently ordering his appointees to boycott the legislative process.

In his absence, the conformity bill went to the Taxation Committee, where House Democrats, unfortunately, played games of their own.

There are several dubious business tax provisions. The most expensive is “accelerated depreciation,” which allows businesses to deduct the cost of new investment faster, effectively getting a big tax break. While occasionally used in federal stimulus packages, such as the one passed in 2009, accelerated depreciation is generally seen as among the least effective means of boosting economic growth.

Instead of making that case clearly, Democrats hemmed and hawed, muddying what they would or would not support. Republicans proposed extending the depreciation rules for two years and making them permanent, which makes little sense, given that the federal rules aren’t.

The logical, and most politically palatable, course would be to approve conformity for one year, recognizing that investments were made with the expectation of congressional action. A bill to do that might have passed muster, letting the next Legislature decide the issue for the following tax year.

Instead, Democrats amended the bill in the House to add $23 million in school funding, which effectively gridlocked things after the Senate, controlled by the Republicans, refused to accept the amendment. Businesses still can’t file their taxes, and the standoff could continue indefinitely.

The Republicans are clearly correct here. School funding has no business in a conformity bill, and Democrats offered no explanation why it’s there other than that schools need it.

This leads directly to the budget problem. Without a proposal from the governor, spending bills are piling up at the Appropriations Committee, which, presumably, will eventually put together a makeshift budget — that’s where school funding should have gone, too. Lawmakers traditionally “flat fund” school aid, then add more when second year revenues are known; they should be able to achieve consensus there.

That’s the trouble with responding to the governor’s games with more games. His irresponsibility in not proposing a budget to make the innumerable changes state agencies need — no one can accurately predict spending needs two years in advance — has been eclipsed by lawmakers’ petty maneuvering.

Nor is this the only example. Kennebec County Democrats tied up appointments to vacant sheriff and county commissioner positions because they refused to submit more than one sheriff candidate to LePage, even though the law clearly requires “recommendations.”

The governor isn’t doing his job. But responding in kind only digs everyone in deeper, while confusing and annoying the public.

This has been the way of Washington ever since Newt Gingrich decided in 1995, as House speaker, that it would be a great idea to shut down the federal government. It’s now progressed to where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell feels comfortable abrogating his constitutional responsibility to hold a vote on a presidential Supreme Court nomination.

An explosion is building in the presidential race, the consequences of which we cannot yet foresee, driven by years of political obstruction and even nihilism. Maine doesn’t have to take that course.

Legislative leaders should get together — now — and put together a budget, including conformity and school funding, with a deadline for getting it done. It would clear the air, and perhaps allow other legislation to go forward.

That’s the basic principle involved: Do your job. It’s also the most important qualification for voters to consider before November — don’t elect anyone who won’t.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]

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