By Judy Meyer
Last June, the four highest ranking party leaders in Maine stepped behind closed doors to draft a budget and re-write tax law in secret.
The men — two Democrats and two Republicans — said Maine had run out of time to craft a budget in public, which is specifically prescribed in the Legislature’s Joint Rules of procedure, and they felt compelled to act outside procedure to reach a compromise on tax cuts and welfare reforms.
There was no public notice. There was no public hearing. There was no discussion on the Appropriations Committee — which is charged with drafting budgets — and the public was not permitted to see the document before it was passed in a hurry-up vote of the Maine Legislature.
The reaction was immediate, the criticism stern.
The lack of public details on the budget and the decision by party leaders to ban media from their meetings was so revolting to Mal Leary — a decades-long and much-respected member of the State House press corps, and a vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition — that he resigned his seat on the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee.
He refused, he said, “to be part of the process that excludes the public from even knowing about proposed changes in law that affect them,” comparing what happened at the state capital in Augusta with politics “as bad as D.C., where votes are taken before members know what they are voting on, let alone the public.”
Lawmakers, in varying degrees of concern, openly acknowledged the budget talks were not conducted under “the normal process,” but many appeared to justify the secrecy because the Legislature was facing a June 30 deadline to pass a budget or face a government shutdown.
The secret meetings were held the week of June 15.
One member of the Taxation Committee, Rep. Diane Russell (D-Portland), acknowledged the public ought to have had an opportunity to weigh in but that the possibility of a government shutdown was not welcome.
Still, she said, the growing aversion among Maine lawmakers to conduct the people’s business in public bordered on “corruption.”
Rep. Adam Goode (D-Bangor) said that much of what party leaders decided behind closed doors had previously been discussed on the Taxation Committee so he wasn’t overly surprised by the final document. But, he said, he was aware of a number of meetings that had been held in private and which should have been — by law — noticed to the public and open to the press in the making of that document.
Those sitting on the Appropriations Committee who watched as the budget was yanked from their table and decided in private were openly appalled. Appropriations had already, by a bipartisan vote of 9-4, approved a budget: in public, with all the associated notices, hearings and work sessions. And, yet, party leaders wrested the budget away for further work, citing a desire to address tax policy.
In the end, a $6.7 billion biennial state budget and tax bill were crafted, sent to the Legislature and ratified without a single member of the public informed of the process.
Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the budget on June 29; lawmakers overrode that veto the following day, ending their first regular session and averting a shutdown.
On Dec. 16, 2015, as the Legislature was preparing to come back for its second session, the board of directors of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition drafted a letter to Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport), House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick), House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette (R-Newport), and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond (D-Portland), raising its considerable concern about the closed-door talks and calling on party leaders to strictly follow legislative procedure in the new year.
In its letter, the board wrote:
It was an affront to Maine residents to craft a budget in private and refuse to allow members of the public to view the document until after it had been approved by the Legislature. The process was grossly contrary to all sense of transparency and accountability, and a clear deviation from the Legislature’s Joint Rules that place sole decision-making authority on budget matters squarely with the Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs — not with legislative leadership.
Alfond had defended the budget process, saying increasing acrimony between LePage and lawmakers were “not normal times” and required extraordinary action. And, he said, the closed-door discussions were merely “tweaks” to what members of Appropriations had already approved.
MFOIC disagreed, arguing abnormal times “in Augusta does not authorize an abnormal budget process, and the closed-door negotiations were anything but ‘tweaks.’ The outcome changed Maine’s tax code without public hearing or debate, among other things, favoring the convenience of private talks over the valued trust that grows from discourse conducted in full public view.”
In its letter, the MFOIC board implored the four involved in the talks and six other leading lawmakers to:
individually and collectively amend the Joint Rules to specifically ban closed-door meetings for budget negotiations — in conformance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and your own Joint Rules — to ensure such an episode is not repeated. We suggest the following language be added to Joint Rule 304: “All hearings, work sessions and other meetings of committees, and subcommittees thereof, shall be open to the public.”
It’s been a month since the letter was sent, with no response from lawmakers.
Not a whisper.
Judy is vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.