Turkey and government reform: Both should give you a good night’s rest

Has everyone recovered from the Thanksgiving meal?

I’m not talking about political arguments around the dinner table; I mean the actual, tangible food. It is an American tradition to eat a bit too much, watch the Detroit Lions lose, and then nap. Whether it is the tryptophan from the turkey (it’s not), too much pie (it might be), or a few too many beverages (that too), Thanksgiving has a way of putting us to sleep.

So in that vein, I’ll offer my own drowsy prescription to help you sleep the rest of the weekend. With the election results, Democrats kept the state House but Republicans made gains. The GOP kept the Senate with a narrower majority. And with Mark Eves’ lawsuit failing, Paul LePage will remain governor. In short, this means divided government in Augusta.

With divided government comes disagreements over priorities. Should we focus on reducing and simplifying Maine’s burdensome tax code, as Republicans want to do? Or should we take a page from the Democrats’ platform and “expand” the Affordable Care Act? Each side is unlikely to cede ground to the other; they will be locked into a battle of ideas. So are we doomed to have an unproductive 128th Legislature?

Maybe not. The split in power presents an opportunity to make some systemic changes to the structure of Maine’s government. It isn’t sexy and they might be sleepy, but here are a few proposals our representatives in Augusta should consider.

Legislative Reform

Remember 2015’s ballot question about so-called “Clean Elections”? How it was going to reduce the influence of outside spending, enabling normal citizens to run for office? It didn’t quite work.

Over $14 million was spent on the race to control the Maine State House. In almost every case, the groups aligned with the left of the political spectrum had the advantage. The result? Pretty much the status quo. Neither chamber flipped, and incumbents were nearly all re-elected.

Dollars alone don’t win elections — you need to knock on doors and know your neighbors. For many would-be engaged people, they don’t mind that part of it. The challenge comes if they actually catch the car and are elected to serve. Most Mainers can’t spend three to five days a week in Augusta for six consecutive months; a normal job doesn’t provide that type of freedom. That is why the Legislature is full of retirees, students, and professionals or business owners who can set their own schedules.

If we really want to make the Legislature accessible for everyday people — true citizen lawmakers — we need to reform it. Hopefully Augusta can agree on one way to do so.

Constitutional Officers

Here’s a question: Does anyone think Washington would’ve worked more effectively if only the GOP-controlled Congress had been able to choose President Barack Obama’s attorney general, without input from the White House?

Of course not. So why does Maine create a shadow fourth branch of government with its constitutional officers?

This question has come up before. In recent years, the answer has been these offices should remain separate to serve as a check on Gov. LePage. Whether you consider that argument brilliant or boneheaded, the fact is his tenure is ending. So any change will not affect his administration.

Let’s put a question on the ballot giving the governor of Maine the ability to appoint these officers subject to Legislative confirmation. If we’re worried about independence, give the constitutional officers a term of years which ends with the appointing governor. It will give the next chief executive the ability to lead a team on behalf of our state; or, more succinctly, do the job we elect him or her to do.

Debt and Bonding

Lastly, Mainers passed Question 6 earlier this month, agreeing to borrow $100 million for transportation infrastructure. And in 2015 we also agreed to borrow $100 million.

But over the last two years, we’ve already budgeted and spent nearly $100 million annually to pay for earlier bonds, including $16 million in interest every year. What if, instead of paying banks and lenders for the privilege of borrowing their money, we just invested that debt service of $100 million directly on important initiatives?

With an annual budget exceeding $5 billion, $100 million in borrowing is less than 2 percent of our total state income. We should be able to build a system — and enshrine it in the Constitution — which lets us invest as we go instead of sticking future taxpayers with an invoice.

And if the topic of state bonding and finance doesn’t put you to sleep, go have some more turkey. We need our rest; Augusta has a lot of work to do, and they’ll need our help.

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.