Four months ago, House Republicans and Gov. LePage manufactured a crisis that turned the Legislature into a horror show.

By withholding support for routine procedural bills, they hoped to apply pressure on Democrats to rewrite citizen-initiated laws, including Medicaid expansion and the minimum-wage increase.

Instead, the Republicans succeeded in creating a legislative zombie session, one that’s neither dead nor alive, which worked in fits and starts throughout the summer. Ultimately, action by the courts took some of the most contentious issues off the table, and the zombie was mercifully put to rest before it could get its hands on the minimum wage.

It was hardly a happy ending, but it’s a relief that it’s over.

This episode should provide a valuable lesson to those of us who believe that Maine is doing too much of its lawmaking by referendum. If you want to have fewer complex issues decided on a yes-or-no basis by the voters on Election Day, you should take a long look at what just happened and figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

It’s not just a simple case of philosophical difference or partisan gridlock. This was a direct attack on the legislative process designed to give a numerical minority the upper hand in negotiations to undo programs with popular support.


House Republicans used their ability to stop the process to blow up bipartisan deals that had the support of the Republican-controlled Senate.

In the House, Republicans refused to vote on an errors bill, which fixed various mistakes in the budget passed in 2017.

One of those errors was a simple typo that had the effect of denying Clean Election funding to qualified candidates for legislator and governor. And they stonewalled a compromise on funding to implement Medicaid expansion, giving LePage an excuse to shirk even the most basic administrative steps required under the law that was passed by the voters.

All the jockeying pushed legislative business from the spring into the summer, but even given the delay, they did not accomplish much. A Superior Court justice ordered the state to distribute the Clean Elections funding. Another judge ordered the administration to file a Medicaid expansion plan with the federal government as required by the law. That was upheld by the state supreme court.

With their two main bargaining chips lost, House negotiators were able to come to terms on the remaining unfinished business, including a compromise bill that brought the state tax code into closer conformity with changes to the reformed federal code. Additional support for child protective services, including hiring caseworkers and updating the computer system, was also approved.

In the end, the minority was not able to exert its will over everyone else, but it did drag out the process and sap the public’s confidence in the lawmakers’ ability to do their jobs. This kind of legislating invites the work-arounds through referendums and the courts that conservatives say they don’t like. The lesson for future lawmakers should be that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

In the book “How Democracies Die,” authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt talk about “institutional forbearance,” which they describe as one of the unwritten laws that keep democratic competition from turning into a partisan fight to the death.

They write: “Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system.”

Thanks to term limits, there will be a new cast of characters in Augusta next year. Lawmakers and the next governor ought to look at the 2018 horror show, and pledge that there won’t be a sequel.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.