The decision by Democrats in the Maine Legislature to quickly enact their own budget on a party-line vote is a fairly perplexing one. Although they’ve hyped their spending plan as a “baseline budget” that differs little from Gov. Mills’ original proposal, that raises an interesting question: If that’s true and it’s so uncontroversial, then why move forward with it as a majority budget at all? Although Democrats have the votes to pass their own budget, it seems like an enormous political gamble for relatively little gain in policy. Democrats appear to be picking a completely pointless fight here, and that’s bad for the state as a whole.

In her first biennial budget, Mills raised spending by a billion dollars – including covering the cost of MaineCare expansion, which her predecessor had long fought – and Republicans in the Legislature mainly went along with it. Not only was there no threat of a shutdown resulting in last-minute dramatics, the budget largely sailed through the Legislature with widespread bipartisan support. Keeping that budget largely in place with minor adjustments related to the pandemic shouldn’t have been a huge lift for the majority Democrats. While the two parties recently had a scuffle over the just-passed supplemental budget, that was fairly easily resolved in the end.

The truth is that by going it alone with the budget, Democrats have handed Republicans a political gift, if they’re wise enough to recognize it. Part of the reason that compromise budgets have become the norm in Augusta as of late is that they’re politically more palatable for both the majority and the minority parties. That was the case when Republicans had the majority in 2010, and Democrats reluctantly went along with their budget, and it remains true now. A budget that is the result of genuine bipartisan negotiations and has the support of two-thirds of the Legislature is hard for either party to turn into a campaign issue in the fall. Budgets are enormously complex documents, and it’s easy for any Mainer to find something that they hate in the state budget. Still, if a legislator finds themselves to be the subject of political attacks about the budget in a campaign, it’s easy enough for them to respond with, “Sure, there were things I didn’t like in the budget, but most people in both parties supported it.”

With a majority budget passed solely by one party, it becomes much easier for the minority party to make it into a campaign issue. They can pick it apart piece by piece and legislators who vote for it will have to simply defend everything in it. Every single part of the budget, regardless of how small or large the issue is, will entirely be the fault of Janet Mills and the Democrats. While a bipartisan budget is a consensus document that reflects the art of the possible, a majority budget is simply a political document that reflects the will of one party.

More broadly, it also becomes difficult for any incumbent legislator or Janet Mills to ever again claim that they support bipartisanship if they support a majority budget. Up until this week, the idea that she was able to govern in a bipartisan way was likely to be a central theme in her forthcoming re-election campaign. That could have been particularly effective if she faces former Gov. Paul LePage, who fought with not only Democrats but also fellow Republicans in the Legislature. Now, though, that talking point is largely robbed from her: Signing the budget makes any claims of bipartisanship from her insincere. Republicans in Augusta can rightly say that they attempted to negotiate the budget in good faith with Democrats, but that the majority pulled the rug out from under them and chose to go it alone instead.

While Republicans can’t stop the Democrats from enacting their own budget, they can thwart their policy goals in other ways. Mills has proposed a number of bond packages, which always require two-thirds support: Republicans should make those a casualty of a majority budget. They should also make negotiations over any future supplemental budgets extremely painful, if not impossible. It is only by imposing major costs to Democrats – both politically and in terms of policy – that Republicans can keep majority budgets from becoming the new normal.

Hopefully, Republicans can point out to Mainers that giving Democrats full control of Augusta is like handing them a blank check; the reckless decision to pass a majority budget is proof of that.

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

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