Yesterday, as I have almost every year since the mid-80’s, I had the privilege of moderating the annual town meeting in the place where I live, Leeds, Maine. This exercise in pure democratic government always inspires me. There are challenging moments, when people annoy or confuse each other, but it always works out. My job as moderator is to be sure we collectively understand what question we are deciding and that we have exchanged our points of view and found our common ground as best we can. When we can’t, and the vote is divided, we generally know where we stand and why. There’s always some complaining, some sharp disagreement, and some skepticism, but there is also some humor, some tolerance and forgiveness, and nearly universal civility. As we adjourn, I always take joy in the peaceful, collective decision-making that has been accomplished, even when some of those decisions didn’t go the way I’d have preferred.
Our State budget process this year stands in especially disquieting contrast to the town meeting. That’s partly because, a few months ago, by statewide vote, Mainers enacted a law providing more funding for public education and specifying a tax increase on the highest income earners to pay for it. Our Governor, and those representatives belonging to his political party, are so opposed to this tax that they will not support a state budget until the new tax is either repealed or effectively nullified.
This impasse arises from a conflict between the voting power of individuals across the state at the ballot box and the voting power of representatives whom those same voters elected to govern them between opportunities to use the ballot box. Republicans – duly elected by the voters in their districts – are contending that the tax is a bad idea and that they don’t intend to allow it to take effect, even though it is currently the law. They have both a majority in the State Senate and the power of the Governor’s veto to wield in seeking the instant demise of the November enactment. They lack the votes to repeal the tax, but they can refuse to approve a budget. They appear willing to threaten to paralyze state government, in an effort to pressure their Democratic Party colleagues in the Legislature to join them in repealing or effectively nullifying the duly enacted tax.
There are many substantive arguments about what would be the best budget for Maine, and I hope to write about some of them soon, but that’s not my focus today. Fresh from the civil, sober, yet joyful experience of pure democracy at town meeting, it’s the flawed process and even more deeply flawed spirit of the Republican opposition to raising taxes for education that troubles me most.
The process is flawed in ways we can’t fix easily – there’s a brittleness to referendum voting that makes give and take of the kind that can happen in a town meeting, or the Legislature, impossible. The flawed spirit of the Republican power play, however, cannot be excused by the idiosyncrasies of representative democracy. An infusion of the spirit of the town meeting would provide a remedy.
You might think that my romance with the town meeting is unrealistic for a complex state budget, and there’s some truth to that. I’ll admit that the issues in the Town of Leeds are simpler, because much of the hard stuff is handled at the state and national levels. When we think about what to do for the kids, we are thinking about whether to put more topsoil on the ball fields, not about the alarming increase in the number of kids in deep poverty – unable to study or behave because they lack stable homes or enough food. Our big ticket items are things like how many roads need repaving, not how many people lack health care or how we can have a better educated workforce with more opportunities. But that’s not fundamental to the difference in approach between the collective decision-making at town meeting and the brinksmanship over the education referendum in the State House. The difference is in where we start and end the conversation, and who is doing the talking.
At town meeting, we lay out what we think we need for road repairs, what we want to do for the kids and for the quality of the water in the lake, what we need to do for people who need help getting by. What we decide to spend on all these things inexorably determines what our taxes will be. We don’t start by saying we are going to magically make things better by fixing our tax rate and then asking what spending that matters to us we are going to throw out. We don’t start by saying that we must tax the nicest homes and wealthiest people more lightly, because otherwise they will run away from our shared responsibilities and leave the rest of us destitute.
We know from the start that every dime we add to spending is going to raise taxes, so we wrestle with every decision, but we do it knowing that our town government is the means by which we do things collectively to sustain a community we love to live in. Taking care of each other and our common needs actually supports our individual opportunities to seek and achieve prosperity. We know that in our hearts and bones. We don’t even need to say it out loud as we work our way through the mundane, the controversial, and the trivial to complete our annual proceedings. So, we decide what we need to spend to have the kind of community we want. That in turn affects the taxes we’re going to pay.
Approached in the spirit of the town meeting, the problem at the state level is easier to solve. The will of individual voters cannot lightly be disregarded, and the public broadly has voted to spend more on education to improve our children’s prospects, and to raise taxes on those most able to pay them for that purpose. If duly elected representatives of those same voters differ as to the economic implications of those taxes, a dialogue about whether the structure can be adjusted to better balance the positive and negative effects can occur. But the voters’ collective decision was to raise revenue, not to cut out other essential services or deny educational needs. That choice, embodied in law, was definitive and consistent with a shared determination to support our children and thus protect the future of the state we love to live in. It must be honored.