The attempt to use voter-approved bonds as bargaining chips violates the Founders’ vision.
By The Editorial Board
Portland Press Herald editorial
‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote Founding Father James Madison. “If angels were to govern men … (no) controls on government would be necessary.”
But – even in Maine – we are not angels and we are not governed by them. We need a government that is strong enough to protect us from each other but not so strong that we can’t protect ourselves from it. Madison’s prescription to achieve that balance from 1788 still holds true today: We need a robust system of checks and balances.
And that’s really what’s behind L.D. 1378, a bill sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, with the sleep-inducing title “An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Issuance of Bonds and To Effectuate the Issuance of Bonds To Support Maine’s Natural Resource-based Economy.”
The fight over the bill has been described as an ideological disagreement over the value of public versus private control of land, or a political tussle between the moderate Katz and Paul LePage, the self-described “most conservative governor in America,” or even as a debate about who “likes poor people” the most.
But something more fundamental is at stake. If the governor wins here, the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances in Maine will be hurt in ways from which they may never recover.
This is a fight about power. The governor says he want to speed up timber cutting on Department of Conservation forestland to raise money that will help elderly residents to upgrade their home heating systems. Rather than going through the normal channels, he has submitted a bill and he is refusing to sell voter-approved bonds for the Land for Maine’s Future Program until it is passed.
But even passing his bill might not be enough.
The governor says that he is reviewing the projects awaiting funding, which have already been subject to a rigorous evaluation process and approved by a board on which his appointees make up a majority. He said he will decide which projects meet his personal criteria of worthiness. Some he will fund, he says, and others he will not.
You don’t have to be a supporter of Land for Maine’s Future to cry foul. And you don’t have to be a political opponent of the governor to see that he is taking Maine down a dangerous path.
Even if you campaigned for LePage last November, you can’t feel comfortable about the dangerous precedent he is setting. The very system of checks and balances that Madison says that we need to prevent chaos or tyranny is under attack, and it won’t snap back when someone else is governor.
The sacred principle of our republican form of government is that the people are the ultimate decision makers. Elected and appointed officials are hired to pursue goals, and when different interests come into conflict, there are systems to resolve the disputes. But no government official has any power that is not given to him or her by the people, and there is no higher court of appeal than the voters.
Bond issues, like those for Land for Maine’s Future, don’t fall out of the sky. They require the support of two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s signature or an override of his veto before they can even go to the voters. Once passed at the ballot box, they become a solemn obligation of the government, not a bargaining chip for the occupant of the Blaine House.
Lawmakers of either party who let LePage get away with this power grab are not doing their jobs. This is not about forestry practices, heating costs or partisan politics. It’s about whether a government of, by and for the people (not angels) will keep running as Madison advised.