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Maine Democrats Go It Alone On Budget — And It Was Only A Matter Of Time

Legislative Democrats’ decision to pass a “back to basics” $8.3 billion two-year budget with or without minority Republican support next week has prompted an outcry among GOP lawmakers, who have described the move as a “sham,” “heavy handed” and a break with precedent that will “silence” their constituents.

It could also be described as inevitable.

Increasing brinkmanship in recent budget negotiations, as well as looming legislative and gubernatorial contests next year, have combined to create a deficiency of trust among state lawmakers.

“The whole system was designed so that everyone has a seat at the table in order to collaborate, deliberate and negotiate. That is not happening now,” said Republican Senate leader Jeffrey Timberlake while addressing reporters outside the State House on Wednesday.

Timberlake says that Democrats’ flexing their majority is a break from budgeting norms. He’s correct that bipartisan budget deals have been more common than not in recent years — the last two-year budget passed largely along party lines was in 2005, when Democrats were in control — but Republicans did use their majority in 2012 to enact changes to that year’s spending plan.

However, there’s a growing belief among Democratic activists that Republicans have exploited a bipartisan budgeting tradition for partisan ends — and at great potential cost.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press
Associated Press
Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, addresses the Legislature, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

That feeling was acutely present during the recent weeklong standoff over changes to the state’s current spending plan. The stalemate risked tax relief for more than 28,000 Maine businesses and 160,000 unemployed residents when Republicans declined to accept Democrats’ proposal for tax conformity on pandemic loans and held out for additional tax breaks for business lunches and obscure benefits for multinational corporations, of which 10 or fewer would benefit in Maine.

The GOP ultimately relented when Democrats agreed to study the tax breaks for multinational corporations, as well as diverting surplus money to the state’s rainy day fund — money that may have ended up there anyway if revenue projections continue to improve as expected.

It’s unclear whether the tax benefit standoff was the primary impetus for Democrats to move a “no frills” two-year budget next week. The decision will strip Republicans of their negotiating leverage because GOP votes will no longer be necessary to enact the spending plan by July 1 and avoid a government shutdown.

Democrats were quick to highlight the barely averted tax relief disaster during a press conference held Wednesday.

“What we have seen here far too long here is cliffhangers every June and at the end of our session,” said state Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. “We don’t need cliffhangers anymore. We just saw a cliffhanger with the supplemental (budget) where businesses and taxpayers all over the state were waiting for clarity from the Legislature.”

The state’s current budget was passed in 2019 with bipartisan support and with relatively little drama. However, the recent supplemental budget dispute conjured memories of the bitter budget battles that took place during former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s two terms.

Among them was a theatrical blowup in 2017 that resulted in a brief government shutdown — Maine’s first in more than a quarter century.

The 2017 budget talks began with a dispute over a voter-approved tax on wealthy Mainers to pay for public education costs. Republicans, including LePage, vowed to eliminate it in the budget. Democrats, who had a slim majority in the House at the time, relented — too easily and too quickly, in the minds of some liberal activists — when former House Speaker Sara Gideon and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau brokered a bipartisan deal that scuttled the new tax.

Claiming they had been shut out of the negotiations, LePage and House Republicans refused to support the bipartisan agreement and staked their opposition to a 1.5% increase in the lodging tax, even though LePage himself had originally proposed a 1% lodging tax increase in his budget plan.

The resulting government shutdown ended when Democrats agreed to eliminate the tax increase, but not before days of excruciating and fruitless negotiations, dueling press conferences and posturing.

The standoff also included a voicemail LePage left for a Republican lawmaker in which the governor said he was leaving town for 10 days during the shutdown. LePage later said the message was a ruse designed to get GOP senators back to the bargaining table.

LePage is no longer governor, but his repeated vows to run against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills next year and his enduring loyalty among some Republicans is top of mind among Democrats. After all, a bitter budget dispute or government shutdown could not only impede an economic recovery, it could also hamper Mills’ reelection chances in a way that GOP attacks on her pandemic response have not, at least so far.

In a statement this week, Timberlake, a longtime ally of LePage, described Democrats’ concerns about a protracted budget dispute or a shutdown as a “mythical idea” that Democrats are using to justify steamrolling the GOP.

If he’s right then it will arguably mark a significant change in governing tactics by a Democratic Party frequently criticized by its own members for its reluctance to use the power it’s earned after winning elections.

Democrats insist Timberlake is wrong. They say their move toward a majority budget isn’t a power play, but smart defense.

King signals support for filibuster change

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King appears to be changing his thinking — again — about overhauling use of the filibuster, the Senate process requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation rather than a simple majority.

In a column published in the Washington Post, King writes that he originally viewed the filibuster as a tool for obstructionists when he entered the Senate in 2013.

However, he wrote, some of the Democrats he caucuses with convinced him that eliminating the filibuster could come with consequences.

“They simply made the point that what goes around, comes around; that the political makeup of the Senate would inevitably change (as it did two years after I arrived),” he wrote, “and that today’s annoying obstructionism could be tomorrow’s priceless shield against policies we wouldn’t like or, more probably, in defense of policies we do like.”

King now says those defenses of the filibuster only make sense if the 60-vote threshold is used sparingly and to leverage concessions, “rather than to simply obstruct.”

He also signaled that the filibuster should not be used to block voting rights protections, especially amid “nakedly partisan voter-suppression legislation pending in many states.”

King is referencing the For the People Act, a sweeping proposal by Democrats designed to increase voting access.

“If forced to choose between a Senate rule and democracy itself, I know where I will come down,” he wrote.

As for other uses of the filibuster and potential reforms, King indicated that his support for changing the Senate rule will depend on whether Republican leader Mitch McConnell uses it to obstruct the entirety of the Democrats’ agenda rather than bargain in good faith.

Hydro-Quebec adds Maine advocates

A high-powered D.C. lobbying firm hired by Hydro-Quebec is beefing up its public relations efforts to help the Canadian power generator convince Mainers to support Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project.

According to Foreign Agent Registration Act documents filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, Forbes Tates Partners has assembled a seven-person public relations team that includes several Mainers. Among them are Katie Summers-Grice, former state Sen. Garrett Mason and Crystal Canney, a former campaign aide for Sen. King.

The additions, first reported by Foreignlobby.com, are part of a $449,000 contract extension Hydro-Quebec signed with Forbes Tate in November.

The new disclosures come as Hydro-Quebec continues to draw fire from some state lawmakers for exploiting a loophole in Maine election law that allows them to influence an anticipated ballot campaign that could scuttle the corridor project.

Let it burn

There’s a bill in the Legislature that will allow certain nonprofits to “conduct open air cremations by pyre.”

That’s another way of saying that Viking funerals could soon be legal in Maine.

What took so long?

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.