Well, so much for bipartisanship.

It appears that, despite his much-ballyhooed campaign promises to work with Republicans, Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to move ahead with passing their stimulus plan without any Republican votes.

That’s not for a complete lack of effort on the Republican side, at least, not in the Senate: Susan Collins led a Republican delegation to a White House meeting with their own counter-proposal. Unlike many of her colleagues on her side of the aisle, she was willing to engage with the new administration and negotiate; despite saying the right things, though, it doesn’t appear that Biden is willing to reciprocate. That doesn’t mean that real bipartisan governing is completely dead for the next four years, but it does appear to be ailing at the moment.

Since they won the White House and Congress, Democrats don’t need to work with the opposition at all if they can stay unified. In Augusta, it’s not quite so simple.

Republicans actually do have a say in how the latest pile of federal stimulus money that may come our way will be spent. That’s because, unlike when the state got a billion dollars from the federal government last year, the Legislature is in session and is available to serve as a true check on the executive branch. If that’s going to happen, it will be up to the Republicans, since Democrats will largely follow the lead of Gov. Mills.

As the Legislature crafts both a supplemental budget for this year and the next biennial budget, they’ll have to consider how the next pile of federal money will be spent. If the stimulus package that passes is close to what the Biden administration proposed, state government is in line to receive an additional billion dollars, with local governments getting almost $650 million.


The Legislature needs to keep a strict eye on how that money is being allocated and spent, both by the state and by local governments. The money should be used only to help address the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, not for pet projects or programs. For the state, that means that the first priority should be plugging the revenue shortfall both this year and in the next budget. That alone will take up much of the billion dollars, but it should allow Maine to get through the forthcoming budget cycle without any tax increases or sweeping budget cuts. That should be a relief: Maine, along with the rest of the country, would have real difficulty absorbing the impact of the pandemic without federal aid.

The next priority after the current shortfall should be direct assistance to Mainers who have been affected by the economic downturn. As much as possible, this aid should be geared toward people and small businesses, just as it has been in the federal stimulus programs thus far.

Other states have already taken this step. California passed its own version of direct payments to individuals, for instance; Maine could consider a similar program. The state could also increase funding for the Economic Recovery Grant Program. Initially funded by last December’s federal CARES Act, it would be good for the Legislature both to increase funding and provide clear statutory organization and oversight for the grants.

If the stimulus plan passes, the Legislature should also consider whether the more than $100 million in additional borrowing that Mills has proposed thus far is truly necessary. Even if there is wide agreement on the spending priorities in Mills’ new bond proposal, it would be far better to accomplish those goals with one-time federal money. No matter how good a rate Maine gets on bonds, borrowing is borrowing. Another advantage of using the federal stimulus money for those purposes is that it prevents the money from being used to establish new, ongoing programs.

That needs to be the top priority for Republicans: Ensuring that the federal stimulus money is spent solely to address the current crisis. The Republican Party was right that Janet Mills’ first biennial budget was unsustainable in the long term; they must ensure that federal assistance doesn’t enable further growth in state government.

Each time the state budget grows, it creates a new baseline and becomes harder to cut spending in the future. It will be up to Republicans in Augusta to make sure that any new federal money doesn’t further enable that. To do that, they’ll need to be unified and disciplined, but it’s vital to the future of Maine.

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

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