The passage of a supplemental budget by the Legislature after the Democrats needlessly rushed through a partisan majority budget earlier this year was a surprise, especially given that a few weeks before the spending plan’s approval, leadership in both parties were sounding pessimistic about the possibility of a deal.

In the end, it sailed through both the House and the Senate without even a roll-call vote. For once, this wasn’t because the minority Republicans simply capitulated to the Democrats on everything. Instead, it was the result of real bipartisan negotiations. That happened not only because Democrats were willing to actually have discussions, but also because Republicans  didn’t make unreasonable demands.

They didn’t insist on some sort of massive tax cut, for instance: Instead, they got Democrats to agree to send stimulus checks out to Mainers who worked throughout the pandemic. This was a reasonable compromise for both parties. Democrats could frame it as an extension of the federal-level stimulus checks, while Republicans could frame it as a tax cut. Regardless of what rhetoric either party uses, it’s a real victory for working-class Mainers that directly benefits individuals, rather than being filtered through employers or another level of government.

As with the federal version, Maine’s stimulus checks shouldn’t be just a one-time emergency program, but they also shouldn’t be an additional ongoing new program, either. Instead, they should be used as a model for how to reform social welfare programs generally: Rather than making people jump through endless hoops to apply for assistance, the state or federal government could simply send checks out based on income. In the long run, that could reduce the overhead and cost associated with many social welfare programs and reach more people in need. That’s the type of innovative solution that could actually gain bipartisan support.

The willingness of both parties to return to bipartisanship in Augusta may also have implications for the upcoming gubernatorial race next year. It was clear that, even after the fight over the majority budget, neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted the entire rest of the session to devolve into constant partisan trench warfare. After the fight over the majority budget, other legislative business proceeded apace for the rest of the session. Legislative Republicans didn’t take every opportunity to throw wrenches in the works; instead they returned to the negotiating table on a variety of issues. Essentially, the supplemental budget became a do-over for both parties, all but negating the potential political impact of the majority budget.

That may well have been good politics for Republicans in Augusta, since it showed that they actually have ideas of their own and are interested in governing. They can now point to some solid accomplishments this session, both in enacting good policies and in reigning in their far left-wing Democratic colleagues. What it didn’t do, in any way, shape or form, is help former Gov. Paul LePage in his quest to reclaim the Blaine House.

It probably would have been better for LePage politically if the supplemental budget negotiations had completely collapsed, resulting in another partisan confrontation. That would have given him a solid talking point to use against Mills; instead, most voters are unlikely to remember the majority budget come next fall. He could have made that point any time Mills brought up the brief government shutdown under his watch; now he’s essentially been robbed of it.

As a candidate next year, LePage will be both blessed and cursed by having held the office previously. Ordinarily, campaigns against incumbents are – rightly – viewed as a referendum on their term. That’s especially true when incumbents (or longtime politicians) face off against newer candidates who don’t have a lengthy resumé. Indeed, it was part of the formula that helped LePage win in 2010, when he held Democrat Libby Mitchell’s long service in the Legislature against her. He won’t have that advantage this time; even as the incumbent, Mills can make the campaign a referendum on his administration as much as one on hers.

It’s hard to see how LePage can win if he runs a campaign based solely on negative attacks on Mills; that will get only the votes of people who are already supporting him. Instead, he’ll also have to present new, fresh policy proposals – ones that have broad appeal to unenrolled voters as well as Democrats and Republicans. If he can do that, rather than simply appealing to his base, he may have a chance at reclaiming his old job and doing more good for Maine.

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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