Opinion

Yes, there was a good reason for the shutdown

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The spinning has commenced as it relates to the government shutdown.

Desperately, all parties to the shutdown, both in favor and opposed, are telling the public how virtuous their position was and how unnecessary and vile the other side’s was.

Now, just because the spinners are spinning doesn’t mean that there weren’t really winners and losers in the shutdown fight, because there are — Gov. LePage and the House Republicans.

First, the House Republicans stood firm against a tax increase and demanded the governor be part of negotiations so they could craft a better budget than the one proposed by the Senate president and speaker of the House.

Second, the shutdown hurt no one. The three days the government was shut down included a weekend and the day before a national holiday. Public-facing services like the Bureau of Motor Vehicles are already closed on Saturdays and Sundays, so any suggestion that there were long lines denying service are patently false.

State employees also got an extra paid day off, state government took steps to mitigate the impact of a shutdown, and the final deal was struck before anyone really noticed.

In other words, they forced a better deal than would’ve happened otherwise, and hurt no one in the process.

Of course, those who disagree with my take and have a vested interest in declaring other “winners” of the shutdown have taken exception to those points.

Saying that House Republicans should be “ashamed” of their role in the shutdown, one columnist repeated what is quickly developing into the “go to” criticism of LePage and House Republicans.

“[T]he budget […] was the same budget that Senate President Mike Thibodeau offered to the House GOP three weeks prior to the shutdown,” he wrote.

This seems to be the main talking point among those who paint an alternative view of the shutdown. The whole thing was petty and unnecessary, they say, because the deal they got is the same one they were offered before the House “forced” a shutdown.

It is a cute story, but not at all true.

Now, it is true that as late as Friday night, LePage did, in fact, put some big-ticket items on the table that he ultimately didn’t get in the final deal.

But was this the same budget, and did LePage and the House Republicans fail to extract meaningful concessions that made the final budget different, and worth the shutdown?
Nope.

After the government shut down, several substantive changes were indeed made to the budget that ultimately passed, which made it different than previous budget proposals.

The final budget, for instance, restored $5 million in grants for school districts for voluntary regionalization projects, which is a longstanding goal of the governor’s. These grants will help reshape education and lower long-term costs.

Additionally, LePage and the House GOP extracted a concession that establishes a registry for conservation lands and land trusts, which is intended to provide transparency for taxpayers to learn more about how conservation lands impact local property taxes.

The final deal also included a state match for hospitals that will allow them to draw down the federal match resulting from tax rebasing. Not what most of us consider a big-ticket item, but it is in fact very important for rural hospitals, and was a big priority for the administration.

The new budget also returned $2 million to property taxpayers in the Unorganized Territories that the Committee of Conference had swept in as they tried to find resources to send through the funding formula.

The state acts as the assessor for the Unorganized Territories, and education in the territories is paid for out of those taxes. The funding doesn’t come from state aid, so this one change made the additional “money for schools” fairer, ensuring the Legislature wasn’t robbing from property taxpayers in the Unorganized Territories to shovel more education funding into Portland.

Also, as it relates to education reform, it is true that the governor didn’t get the statewide teacher contract pilot he wanted, but he traded it for a requirement that school districts increase the percentage of funding that actually goes into the classroom from the current 59 percent to 61 percent in 2018-19 to 70 percent in 2022-23.

There are many other substantive changes, and those who deny them are engaging in misleading spin to advance their own personal agendas.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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