Time for doing nothing has passed

Back at the beginning of the legislative session, I asked a senator about his goals for the session. He answered, “Does doing nothing count?”

We laughed. At the time, “doing nothing” meant not repealing Question 2, the initiative enacted last November that finally fulfilled the 32-year-old state promise to fund 55 percent of local school budgets. It’s been a rocky road ever since.

Now, it is Maine Republicans, specifically the Senate caucus, who must “do something” and resolve the impasse at the State House.

There have been distractions, many launched by Gov. Paul LePage. Although he still carries the title, LePage has in any real sense ceased to govern since he refused to bargain with Democrats over the 2013 state budget, and it was enacted over his veto. He repeated the exercise in 2015, and no one seems to have expected his involvement this year.

Instead, LePage creates “news” by trying to shut down the Maine Turnpike Authority (dead on arrival), whimsically vetoing an expanded “bottle bill” for incoherent reasons (overridden), and close a state prison in Washington County (for now, still open). Lawmakers seem to understand these are diversionary tactics to disguise LePage’s irrelevance, but it isn’t possible to entirely ignore any governor.


The business at hand is the state budget, minus LePage, and signs aren’t promising. In January, Senate President Mike Thibodeau declared that a 3 percent tax on the top 2 percent of wage earners was unacceptable, but said schools would get the promised funding, now estimated at $320 million over two years.

Five months later, the first pledge remains, but the funding promise is gone. Thibodeau instead offered $100 million in short-term surplus funding — not sustainable, and still $220 million short of the mark — while other Republicans suggest the state simply redefine its school obligation by including money earmarked, under the Constitution, for the unfunded liability in the state retirement system. Neither approach is credible; neither will work.

The Education Reform Act of 1984 is the law where the 55 percent promise came from, joined to a host of classroom-based improvements; it’s still a landmark in educational policy. Voters, tired of endless delays in finding the money, voted in 2004 to write the promise into law. Twelve years later, they approved funding to do it.

Both the 55 percent and the income tax surcharge are now law, and Republicans have offered no compelling reason to change it, nor provided any plan.

Much was expected of Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, an Appropriations Committee veteran who’s brokered many deals, and shown courage in standing up to the governor when it was necessary.

Katz, however, made a startling statement last week, saying Question 2 was “the most damaging piece of public policy in the last 20 years” that “will place us not as the highest taxed state in New England or just the Northeast but of the entire country.”


The first charge is debatable — I can think of many more damaging decisions — but the second claim is flawed*. California has raised its top rate to 13.3 percent, and Minnesota’s is now 9.85 percent, and their economies are booming. In the Northeast, New York, New Jersey and Vermont come in at just under 9 percent, and Vermont now has a Republican governor who doesn’t see its tax rate as a problem.

Yes, Maine’s new rate of 10.15 percent is higher than most, and it might be possible to do something about that if Republicans had ever come up with a plan, but they have offered nothing.

There’s a particular irony about Sen. Katz’s role. In 1969, his father, as Senate majority leader, was a crucial Republican vote in favor of the income tax that Democratic Gov. Ken Curtis had proposed. Bennett Katz acted in spite of his own doubts, opposition from the Senate president, and others in his own caucus.

As one result, we now have the University of Maine System, and a flourishing campus in Augusta, whose central building is now named for Bennett Katz. Education was central to his vision of a better Maine, and Republicans should still be supporting that vision.

It’s been so long since we’ve actually recognized, as a state, that it takes money — and sometimes more money — to provide the public services we now enjoy, that we’re stuck in a mindset that says taxes, at any level, can never be the answer.

It is the answer here. And the responsibility, absent the governor, lies with the Senate Republican caucus, the majority.


They must focus their thoughts, look into their hearts, and do what is right for Maine. In this rare case, “doing nothing” is doing something important.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]


*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly characterized Sen. Katz’s contention that the surcharge would make Maine the highest-taxed state in the nation.

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