Tuesday’s advisory opinion by Maine’s top justices that, effectively, ranked-choice voting was unconstitutional brought several reactions. Some people offered “told you so.” Others cheered the ruling on policy grounds. Some of the proposal’s proponents accepted the decision and declared a movement for a constitutional amendment.
And, yes, we saw some provocative political statements trying to make hay from the result. The one that takes the cake? “The Maine Legislature essentially sued voters.” No, they didn’t. Silly statements like that are, in part, why the art of governing seems to have fallen into the abyss.
What really happened was the (Democratic) attorney general told the Maine Senate the Ranked Choice Voting Act, written by advocates, was unconstitutional. Since the law was passed at the ballot box, yet required the Legislature to appropriate possibly millions of taxpayer dollars to put it into effect, senators asked the Supreme Court whether AG Janet Mills was right. Turns out, she — and countless others — were. In a unanimous advisory opinion, the justices said the Act ran afoul of the “plurality” provisions governing elections.
We should commend legislators for taking their oath to the Maine Constitution so seriously, rather than ridicule them by creating some false dichotomy. We the people enshrine rights and processes into our state and federal constitutions for a reason. It places certain beliefs out of reach of fads and whims, requiring a dedicated effort — and significant support — to upend them.
Sometimes that has accidental effects, both happy and unhappy. For example, Maine’s budget requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass. That isn’t required by the Constitution. Instead, statute sets the start of our state fiscal year as July 1. Yet laws — including the budget — are generally not effective until 90 days after the legislature adjourns, which occurs in late June or July.
So, in order to have money available to spend at the start of the new fiscal year, a two-thirds vote is necessary to enact the bill as an “emergency,” meaning it takes effect immediately. In an accidental, roundabout way, our Constitution’s “emergency” requirement forces bipartisanship on the biggest policy document.
But bipartisanship and compromise isn’t always pretty. It can take threats, promises, cajoling, begging, and countless other unflattering tactics. And, in a world where political advocacy organizations threaten excommunication against any elected official who deviates from their dogma, it can be hard to give up ground for the greater good. That good is a two-thirds vote and passage of a budget.
Good or bad, happy or sad, that is why much of the nitty-gritty horse trading on the state budget occurs behind closed doors. And it has for decades, as far as people can remember. Former state lawmaker and chair of the Appropriations Committee Peggy Rotundo was a key player behind closed doors for many years, taken to task for her lack of transparency by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in 2015. Her sudden conversion and demands for “transparency” in a Bangor Daily News’ Op-Ed this week seems disingenuous, at best.
In reality, there is much truth in the famous quote often attributed to Otto von Bismark: “Laws are like sausages. You should never watch them being made.”
Maine’s budget process is ugly to watch up close. You will see adult men break down with emotion over the stress. You will hear curses, raised voices, and threats from normally rational people. And when all is said and done, you will get a document that attempts to spend nearly 7 billion taxpayer dollars that no one really likes.
But because all of those things happen behind closed doors, the veil of bipartisanship is never pierced. When the 13 members of the Appropriations Committee take their seats to offer yeas and nays on proposals, they do so calmly. And their actions ultimately result in a bill that earns a two-thirds vote and keeps Maine government in business.
It would certainly be a better world if the secrecy was not necessary. Public debate over the expenditure of the public treasury certainly would be ideal. Imagine senators and representatives holding enlightened, informed discussions publicly, making compromises and forging solutions — who wouldn’t want to see that?
But that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we get statements saying the Legislature is suing voters when a legitimate constitutional question arises. And political groups accusing officials of “betraying voters” by listening to concerns of constituents around issues like the “tip credit.”
So let’s work towards the ideal, but in the meantime — and more importantly — let’s get something done. We can start with leaving silly statements aside.