Republicans stood up for what they believe in last week – even though it’s not really clear what that is.

At Monday’s special legislative session they voted nearly unanimously to kill $52 million in proposed bonds, including a modest $15 million package to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.

They followed that by – again, almost unanimously – voting along with the majority Democrats to pass a $105 million highway bond.

Taken together, they were able to make it clear to the world, once and for all, that they are against borrowing, except when they’re not.

And they don’t believe in public infrastructure investment, except when they do.

Don’t be confused. It’s not that complicated. The Republicans have finally made their mark on the 2019 legislative session the way a dog marks a fence post. And while the philosophy behind their stand is murky, the message is clear: Maine’s 2020 election is underway, and the time for bipartisan cooperation is over, if it ever existed. Between now and the next election, Democrats can use their majorities for whatever they like, but anything that requires two-thirds support, like a bond issue, is dead on arrival.

Republicans like to say that they voted against “borrowing,” but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Saying you voted against “borrowing” is like saying that you voted against “spending” when you forgot to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. You also voted against food, and for a hungry family.

There is no such thing as a vote on bonds that isn’t also a vote on something else – namely, the thing you need the money for.

So what did the Republicans vote against? There was $20 million for the always-popular Land for Maine’s Future program, which preserves natural sights, wildlife habitat, historic downtowns and working waterfronts. They voted down $8 million that would have rebuilt National Guard and worker training facilities. And they took a hard line against spending $5 million each for municipal water and sewer projects, hazardous waste cleanup and an Efficiency Maine fund for heat pumps.

None of the “no” votes make much sense, but defeating the broadband bond is the most perplexing. Voting against rural internet expansion is like voting against rural economic development, and why would Republican lawmakers, who mostly come from rural districts, want to do that?

When they call the internet the “information superhighway,” they are not kidding. Getting high-speed internet access is as transformative for a community as the arrival of the interstate highways was in the last century, or the railroad in the one before that.

Access to broadband gets products to market and expands economic opportunity. Someone with high-speed internet can work for a company in Los Angeles or New York but live in Maine. They can also check in with their doctor and register their car or pay their property taxes without leaving the house.

People who don’t have a broadband connection can’t do any of that.

Portland, with its all-Democratic legislative delegation, already has high-speed internet (although it would be nice if there were some more competition between providers). If the Democrats had wanted to really hurt their Republican colleagues, they would have been the ones to kill the broadband bond. Letting rural areas go without public investment is like an anti-economic-development smart bomb aimed specifically at Republican districts.

But this isn’t rocket science – it’s politics. It was the Republicans who blew themselves up.

Maybe the lawmakers figure that voters can’t be expected to notice something that isn’t there. People who live in towns without good internet service don’t have everything that the service provides, and maybe they don’t know what they’re missing.

That seems doubtful, since the internet has been around for a while and people do talk.

Republicans seem to feel that they had a big win last week, if the chest-thumping from the state party office can be trusted.

They held the line against economic development in their districts.

They made a statement. It’s just a little hard to understand what they were trying to say.

 

Greg Kesich is editorial page editor at the Portland Press Herald. He can be reached at: [email protected]

 

 

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