Maine’s ship of state is headed into dangerous waters, but there’s still time to change course.
Maine’s recent supplemental budget debate showed clearly that, post-LePage and post-Trump, Republicans have reached a new level of obstruction. Even after Democrats bent over backwards, with GOP-demanded corporate tax breaks making up the majority of spending in the package, House Republicans refused to make a deal — holding out for even more esoteric and unnecessary tax cuts for large businesses.
They only eventually came back to the table when they realized that Democrats were holding firm and that no deal meant no tax breaks for them.
A difficult political environment
This obstruction stands in contrast with negotiations two years ago, when Republicans got most of what they wanted — preserving former Gov. Paul LePage’s tax breaks for the wealthy and adding money to the state’s rainy day fund — and eventually voted for a compromise deal.
Things are different this session. In addition to the general heightened political animosity engendered by the last gasps of the Trump administration, Republicans have spent the last year blasting Gov. Janet Mills in vicious terms over her public health policy and are looking forward to challenging her in an election next year — possibly with LePage, the recently-returned Floridian, as their candidate.
Unlike with the supplemental, there is no safety net for negotiations over the two-year budget. Spending doesn’t just revert to a baseline if no agreement is reached; the state shuts down completely (as it did, briefly, four years ago under LePage).
Republicans have staked out an ideological position against the basic functioning of government, and may think it good political strategy to force a shutdown with Mills at the helm. They have few reasons to compromise. It’s a recipe for disaster.
A legislative safety net
There is, however, a way to lessen the threat of Republican obstruction. Just as U.S. Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden recently used reconciliation to pass the badly-needed American Recovery Act, Democrats in Maine should restore a tactic used in the 90s and early 2000s to overcome Republican obstruction (following a prolonged government shutdown in 1991) and pass a two-part budget.
By splitting the budget in two and passing a backstop budget based on current spending and services by the end of March, Democrats can ensure that the government won’t shut down in the middle of a pandemic just because Republicans refuse to make a deal.
Even if a compromise can be reached, with these dynamics at play it will almost certainly be a plan that fails to meet the needs of the current moment. The pressure of the pandemic has revealed major cracks in many of the institutions Mainers count on, from health care to education to unemployment insurance, and this budget represents our best chance to build them back stronger.
It’s also an opportunity, while the needs of so many are so clear, to finally making sure the wealthy few, who have only gotten richer over the last year, finally begin to pay more of their fair share.
None of that will happen if Republicans know they can take the state hostage to prevent it.
By passing a backstop budget, Democrats can free that hostage and then negotiate additions and changes to the budget in an environment where Republicans actually have an incentive to come to the table.
Photo: The Maine House chamber | Maine State Legislature