With so much of the focus on Washington, Iowa and New Hampshire, even quite a few Mainers might have missed that Gov. Mills released a supplemental budget earlier this month.

The release of Mills’ proposal will kick off what ought to be a fairly low-key battle this time around, with none of the usual drama that we see surrounding the regular biennial budget. During that fight, the Democrats needed a modicum of Republican support because a two-thirds majority was required; this time the bill isn’t an emergency, so they don’t need any Republican votes. During any negotiations around a biennial budget, the threat of a government shutdown is always looming, but that’s not the case with this supplemental, as it’s only being considered due to a surplus.

Mills, having learned nothing from the billion-dollar spending increase in her biennial budget, intends to go ahead and spend most of the surplus as well. She’s proposing $127 million in new spending, and of that, only $20 million (or about 15 percent of the total) is being used to buttress the rainy day fund. She’s not proposing any new tax hikes as part of the budget, but she’s also not offering any new tax relief to hard-working Mainers, either. That means that she’s simply keeping all of the extra tax revenue that the state took in.

It would be nice if the supplemental budget were focused primarily on a key spending priority with bipartisan support, like transportation funding. The entire supplemental budget could be geared toward transportation, something that the whole state recognizes is a major need as we bounce around our roads every day. But it’s not. Instead, Mills proposes just a $10 million spending increase in the supplemental budget for road and infrastructure repair. Rather than budgeting toward that need, Mills is floating a $115 million bond package that will be focused on transportation but will also include $15 million for expanding high-speed internet.

A number of the spending items contained in Mills’ proposal were left over from her bond package that failed this past session, when Republicans wisely stood together in opposition to bonds for anything except transportation. The inclusion of them here in the supplemental budget only proves the Republicans’ point that they should have been part of the budget from the beginning. This will be important to keep in mind when future fights over bonds and budgets come along: Almost anything a governor crams into a bond package is something that could have been part of the regular budget. When it’s put into a bond package instead, it shows that it’s really a secondary priority rather than being a vital need.

While Republicans might be willing to consider another transportation-focused bond package, there’s no reason for them to go along with Mills’ supplemental budget. They already went along with too many spending hikes last session, as they didn’t do nearly enough to fight or even curtail Mills’ biennial budget. Instead, although they blocked one bond package, they largely went along with the Democrats’ spending spree.

Now would be an excellent time for Republicans in Augusta to remember that they’re fiscal conservatives and do more than issue stern news releases. Republicans could approach this supplemental budget the same way they approached the biennial budget: Do what they can to chip away (rather ineffectively) at the spending increases. The problem with that strategy is that it never works all that well for the Republican Party, as it mainly gives the Democrats political cover while offering Republicans a few minor victories at best. Meanwhile, spending continues to increase every year – the only question is where the money goes and how big the increase is.

If Democrats want to continue to increase spending forever, Republicans ought to step aside and let them own it this time. Since Republicans in Augusta can’t force the majority to make any concessions, they shouldn’t give them any cover. Instead, they ought to stand tall and fight the entire supplemental budget, making it clear that Mills’ billion-dollar increase in the last budget was more than enough.

If they don’t, Republicans in Augusta may find increasingly skeptical  voters this year when they hit the campaign trail claiming to be the party of fiscal responsibility. It’s already bad enough that both parties work together to ignore the federal debt and deficit in D.C., but if they start behaving the same way in Augusta, voters will have every reason to be skeptical of them.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: jimfossel

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