How do you define an emergency?

A heart attack … or a stroke … maybe a broken bone?

A house fire … or a hurricane … maybe a 100-year flood?

How about a two-year state budget?

There’s a lot of harrumphing going on among Republicans in the Maine Legislature these days about last week’s passage of an $8.3 billion biennial budget by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Their gripe, in essence, is that the spending bill wasn’t treated as an emergency.

That Republicans could make this argument with straight faces is testament to just how far we’ve strayed in recent years from straight-up majority rule to an appropriations process that is more akin to an every-other-year hostage taking.

“This farce cannot become the new normal,” Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, who sits on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, lamented to her fellow lawmakers.

By “farce,” Arata was apparently referring to how a non-emergency piece of legislation becomes law in Maine. And by “new normal,” she meant a biennial budget that, for the first time since 2005, actually passed on time.

A little background:

Under Maine’s Constitution, measures passed by a simple majority of the Legislature – meaning at least 50 percent plus one – become law 90 days after their enactment.

“Emergency” legislation, on the other hand, takes effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. But in order to get to the governor’s desk, it first must be passed by two-thirds, or a supermajority, in both legislative chambers.

Back to last week.

The Legislature passed the budget on mostly partisan votes on March 30. Gov. Janet Mills signed the measure the next day, clearing the way for the budget to be up and running when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Some would call that good governance. For the first time since 2005, there will be no down-to-the-wire negotiations, no middle-of-the-night deals cut in the waning days of June. More importantly, last week’s votes head off the threat of a state government shutdown by minority Republicans wielding that mandatory two-thirds vote like a ransom demand over the heads of the Democratic majority.

In short, there will be no emergency.

Merriam-Webster defines “emergency” as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances … that calls for immediate action.” The American Heritage Dictionary similarly calls it “a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate attention.”

Note the words “unforeseen” and “unexpectedly.” Now ask yourself, what about a spending package that must by law take effect July 1 every two years is unforeseen or unexpected?

Not a darn thing. In fact, the operative word here should be “procrastinate,” defined by American Heritage as “to put off or delay needlessly.”

The Republicans tell us that it’s all about bipartisanship. They say the emergency approach ensures that their constituents are heard and that resorting to a simple majority disenfranchises the minority party by shutting it out of the budget deliberations.

But what they’re really complaining about is that they didn’t get their way – at least not to the extent they would if the budget’s passage hinged not on what the simple majority wanted, but on what they might extort in return for that elusive two-thirds supermajority.

Alexander Hamilton, when he wrote Federalist Papers No. 22 way back in 1787, predicted the perils of the supermajority.

“What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison,” Hamilton opined. “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.”

Also known as minority rule.

Maine’s own Thomas Brackett Reed, a Republican who served twice as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1890s, put it more bluntly: “The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch.”

It’s understandable that Republican legislators, having just watched the gavel fall for the other side, are upset. House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, decried it as “a bullied budget.”

But then Senate Republican Leader Jeffrey Timberlake of Turner took it one step further.

“If you take a chance and put this budget through under a majority vote, the potential for a people’s veto is out there,” he cautioned, referring to the process by which legislation can be overturned if enough Maine voters – currently 63,067 – sign petitions calling for the measure to go to a statewide referendum.

The kicker is that once enough signatures are certified, the legislation is suspended pending the result of the referendum. In the case of the budget, that could mean a state shutdown from July 1 until the next general election in November.

“We (Republicans) won’t have shut down state government,” Timberlake unconvincingly warned Senate president Troy Jackson and his Democratic majority during last week’s debate. “It will be on your shoulders, Mr. President.”

Timberlake and Co. have until Tuesday to decide whether to open their can of worms – as of Wednesday, the Maine Secretary of State’s Office had yet to receive an application for petitions.

But should the Republicans go ahead and get all those signatures – something they haven’t been very good at lately – it’s hard to imagine the talking points they’d employ to justify forcing a months-long closure of state government: Because they hate being in the minority, a position they’ve occupied for almost all of the last half century?

Better they look back to 1991, when Republican Gov. John McKernan played chicken with then-House Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, over a state budget with workers-compensation reform strings attached.

That shutdown lasted 16 days and featured repeated protests inside the State House. It got so loud that one Republican senator reportedly sustained permanent hearing damage.

Now that was an emergency.


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