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Politics

Will Maine Republicans Shut Down Government By Putting The State Budget Before Voters?

Maine Legislature
Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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AP
Members of the Maine house stand prior to taking the oath of office at the Augusta Civic Center, Wednesday, Dec 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine. The Legislature convened at the venue to allow for social distancing by the members. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

As Democrats used their majority in the Legislature this week to pass an $8.3 billion, two-year budget, many Republican lawmakers used floor debates to decry the end of bipartisan cooperation and the silencing of their constituents.

But one, state Senate Republican Leader Jeffrey Timberlake, of Turner, said Democrats were inviting retaliation.

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“Now you on the other side say that you don't want to shut down government,” he said. “If you take a chance and put this budget through under a majority vote, the potential for a people’s veto is out there.”

Timberlake was referencing a provision in the Maine Constitution that allows citizens to force a people’s veto referendum that can overturn a newly enacted law.

The provision was most recently used last year, when opponents of a new law mandating vaccinations for students organized a people’s veto campaign to try and overturn it. The referendum was overwhelmingly rejected by Maine voters, but by qualifying for the ballot, the anti-vaccine group was able to temporarily suspend implementation of the law until voters had their say.

Timberlake was suggesting the same could happen with the budget, thus forcing a state government shut down — and he said Democrats would be culpable.

“Mr. President, I don't think that's good for the people of Maine because then you (Democrats) will shut down state government,” he said. “We (Republicans) won't have shut down state government. It will be on your shoulders, Mr. President.”

Portland Democratic Sen. Heather Sanborn called the threat a “dismaying” response to a vote that was attempting to avert the budget brinkmanship that has become increasingly routine.

“What I haven’t heard is a substantive disagreement with what’s in this current-services budget,” she said.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who signed the two-year budget Wednesday, rejected the notion that Maine voters would support a people’s veto of a spending plan that largely continues current funding levels while boosting property tax relief, direct tax breaks for homeowners and additional money for public schools.

“Do you believe any of the towns would oppose an actual increase in actual dollars going to revenue sharing for the towns and local government? I don’t think so,” she said in an interview with Maine Public on Wednesday.

Mills might be correct that voters won’t rise in rebellion against a budget that has few, if any, wedge issues buried in its 300 pages.

That’s a contrast to the tax reform bill that Democrats forced through the Legislature in 2009, prompting the Maine GOP to lead a popular revolt that culminated in the tax law’s defeat in a people’s veto referendum that also helped set the stage for a Republican wave election in 2010.

The real threat is arguably the possible suspension of the budget if Republicans attempt to trigger it through the people’s veto process.

Hitting that trigger won’t be easy. Also, the clock is ticking.

To suspend implementation of the budget, opponents would have to gather more than 63,000 voter signatures and have them validated by June 29 by the Secretary of State. The 90-day clock started on Wednesday.

Hitting that short, 90-day window would also require a highly organized campaign. The Maine Republican Party is a potential conduit for such an operation, but it’s unclear if the party is willing to invest its resources in a campaign that may ultimately achieve a temporary government shutdown, but potentially get rejected by Maine voters at the polls.

When asked whether the Maine GOP is contemplating a people’s veto campaign, executive director Jason Savage would only say that there “is a considerable amount of discussion taking place around several possible actions in relation to the budget.”

“That discussion is not simply within the Maine GOP," he added. "We'll be part of those conversations but with the budget freshly passed, getting into the details is premature.”

Even if the Maine GOP is planning a people’s veto — and that’s a big if — the party has had some difficulty recently getting its referendum drives on the ballot.

Last year, despite backing from groups aligned with former President Donald Trump, the party failed to hit the signature threshold that would have asked voters to repeal an expansion of ranked-choice voting in presidential elections. In 2016 the Maine GOP also pulled the plug on a tax and welfare overhaul referendum initially spearheaded by former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

And just this week, a noncitizens voting referendum led by state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, was invalidated by the Secretary of State because only 62% of the submitted signatures were valid.

The Maine GOP was the second biggest donor to Faulkingham’s We the People political action committee, according to data from the Maine Ethics Commission.

As of Thursday afternoon, no individual or group had applied to the Secretary of State to circulate a people’s veto petition.

Splinter group

The Maine Republican Party voted 41-19 against censuring U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for her vote to convict Trump on the impeachment charge that he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

That was good news for Collins, who had been targeted by Trump activists in the party.

However, the vote was not satisfactory to some Aroostook County Republicans. Several members of the county committee announced this week that it was breaking from the Maine GOP to form their own splinter group.

“The Maine Republican Party just isn’t listening to the voices of disenfranchised Republicans that are screaming to hold officials accountable,” said John DeVeau, a member of the new group, in a press statement.

DeVeau dismissed the idea that the move would weaken the GOP.

“We didn’t create the division, we’re actually trying to unify the Republican Party by giving the disenfranchised a voice at the statewide level and to restore the Constitutional balance of powers,” DeVeau said.

The Maine GOP did not respond to a request for comment about DeVeau’s group.

Mills begins fundraising

Mills hasn’t officially announced her expected reelection bid next year, but her campaign has begun its quest for funding.

The governor’s campaign committee has pushed at least two fundraising emails in the past week. Both reference how the pandemic has come to dominate her time in office.

Like governors in other states, Mills and her administration have led Maine’s pandemic response. Republicans are expected to highlight missteps of her administration and conservative advocacy groups have already begun featuring what they describe as testimonials from business owners adversely affected by the governor’s decisions to restrict operations, particularly early in the pandemic.

The efficacy of such criticisms remains to be seen, but it could depend on how the Mills administration handles its exit from the pandemic, specifically its mass vaccination program.

Mills has certainly taken some heat on that front. However, the governor might also benefit from vaccination eligibility schedules that have accelerated at least three times in the past month.

Additionally, as of Thursday, a “back-to-normal” index created by credit ratings agency Moody’s Analytics and CNN ranked Maine’s economy 89% of the way to pre-pandemic levels.