Can we repeal the law of unintended consequences?

You know what would make policymaking much easier? Repealing the law of unintended consequences.

For example, the proponents of last year’s Question 2 — the bill which hiked Maine’s top tax rate to one of the highest in the country at over 10 percent — advertised it would raise an additional $157 million for education. So, now that quarterly tax filings have been made, you would expect to see around a $40 million increase in collections, right?

Not quite.  Maine’s six-person Revenue Forecasting Committee — consisting of five dedicated, professional state employees and a University of Maine economist — just offered their prediction to the Appropriations Committee. Tax filings are pretty much flat, while the forecasters are forecasting that our state will lose approximately $250 million in taxable income. Think that has anything to do with the 3 percent “surcharge”?

An unintended consequence, although not unexpected.

The Maine State House in Augusta. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Or go back to December and look at the marijuana referendum. In the zeal to pass something legalizing pot, Question 1’s boosters failed to put a critical eye towards their proposal. That is why, for a short time, it was essentially legal for kids to smoke marijuana. An unintended consequence fortunately corrected by the Legislature.

Or look at the failure of two Southern Maine restaurants when it came to a “no tipping” experiment. Although a choice of the restaurateur, she found many staff members wanted to earn tips, while patrons were unwilling to pay higher menu prices. She considered adding “service charges” as permitted by federal law in lieu of price increases, but — surprise, surprise — Maine law doesn’t provide that flexibility.

The groups on the left who led the charge to enshrine in statute the erosion and ultimate elimination of tipped wages didn’t consider that part of the equation when it came to waitstaff. Seems like an unintended consequence.

We can keep going through last year’s proposals. However, these examples illustrate well why designing policy is so difficult. Nothing happens in isolation. Every new law is a cause that has an effect, which begets changes, which affect effects, and so on ad infinitum. If solving challenges was as simple as passing a law, we wouldn’t have murder. Or drug use. Or tax cheats. Or any of the other things which are already illegal.

But the real world doesn’t work that way. That’s true even if you agree with what people are trying to accomplish. When those on the left decry tipping as an anachronism which should be abandoned, well, I don’t necessarily disagree. Yet, if we want to convert servers, bartenders, and others in the front of the house to wages and commissions — as sales personnel are throughout most industries — then we need to change our culture. That doesn’t happen by simply enacting a law.

That brings us back to the referendum process. Thirty-second television ads and 50 words on a ballot does not a well-informed policy make. And every single legislative choice made in Augusta or in the voting booth has numerous downstream effects. That is why bipartisan majorities appear ready to tighten up the reins on the initiative process.

Of course, legislators don’t receive exemptions from the law of unintended consequences either. While trying to accomplish something with the best of intentions, a proposal was put forward that would give the courts the ability to prevent questions found to be unconstitutional from ever appearing on the ballot. This led to the unorthodox step of the judicial branch — rightly — opposing the bill.

Weakening the separation of powers enshrined in the Maine Constitution — by setting up four judges as “super legislators” with veto power — is fraught with unintended consequences. The roles of the Legislature and the judiciary are distinct. The former enacts laws it deems wise. The latter decides whether those laws are constitutionally permissible, regardless of whether they think the underlying policy it is the wrong answer or the right one for our state.

Sometimes those wrong answers can be enacted by enough voters checking a box following 50 words on a day in November. So in the meantime, we can only hope Augusta fixes the remaining mistakes of the referendum questions — like they did with marijuana for kids — and spends the time necessary to think through the numerous consequences of their other decisions.

After all, no Legislature, court, or ballot question is ever going to repeal the law of unintended consequences.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.