DAVID FARMER

State budget hinges on trust

Posted June 08, 2011, at 7:14 p.m.
Last modified June 09, 2011, at 11:06 a.m.

Editors note: This column was intended for publication Thursday, but a previous column by David Farmer was printed instead. We apologize for the confusion.

 

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Legislature find themselves in the same rocking boat.

They are torn between the demands of their base and the necessity of passing a state budget that can win the backing of two-thirds of the Legislature.

To be successful — to avoid a state shutdown and the terrible consequences it would have — the leaders of the two parties must work to build consensus and to negotiate a spending plan that adheres to the highest priorities of their party while not alienating so many of their opponents as to make final passage impossible.

It’s a tough line.

And no matter the results inside the State House, the activists on the outside and the die-hard supporters, who are essential to any electoral success, will be disappointed.

For example, LD 309, the so-called “right to work” bill that drew nearly 1,000 protesters to the State House, was pushed off until next year.

For public-sector unions, the show of force and the delay is a clear victory. For some members of the Republican base, the retreat is a broken promise.

I’m not defending the Republican ploy, and I believe LD 309 is bad public policy, but if you can be objective, you can see that GOP leaders made the only sound choice they could.

The coalition that Republicans built that allowed them to capture the majority in the House and Senate means that there has to be room in the big tent for disagreement. Republican leaders didn’t have the votes — if they had, they would have forced the bill — and decided to push the issue off in hopes of changing some minds, twisting some arms or getting a more favorable political climate next year.

Perhaps some rank-and-file Republicans would rather risk the loss than admit even a temporary setback. But just as the Democratic minority has learned the painful lessons of its status, the Republican majority is recognizing the limitations of its power.

On the budget, there’s a similar dynamic, but one that is much more combustible.

At this point, Democrats and Republican leaders must make a deal. They have no choice unless they are willing to shutdown government.

That deal means that both sides will have to accept trade-offs they would rather avoid.

But it also means that Democrats and Republicans in leadership and on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee must — MUST — trust one another.

The budget requires them to hold hands and face members of their own party and a potentially hostile governor.

When a budget deal is reached, these folks essentially take a blood oath to live by its terms.

It’s an odd spectacle on the floor to see Democrats and Republicans from the Appropriations Committee working to kill amendments by folks who are their traditional allies. But that is the requirement of leadership.

It’s impossible to understate how important the relationships are at this point in the process. In recent years, House Democratic Leader Emily Cain and Speaker of the House Bob Nutting have worked closely together as members of the Appropriations Committee to deliver painful budgets and win overwhelming bipartisan support.

Senate Democratic Leader Barry Hobbins and Senate President Kevin Raye have decades of political experience between them. They understand through experience that a deal is a deal.

And on the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Rosen, Rep. Pat Flood, Sen. Dawn Hill and Rep. Peggy Rotundo have demonstrated through countless hours and endless debate an ability to work cooperatively in an environment made extremely partisan by votes to overhaul health insurance regulations, labor laws, abortion and voting rights, to name just a few.

When push comes to shove, these men and women must stand together for a budget to pass.

The first test will come on the floor of the House and Senate.

But the final exam — and much tougher question — will come if the bill reaches Gov. LePage’s desk.

Any budget that passes will be different from his original proposals. And it’s an open question as to whether he will live up to his veto threat or simply declare victory on a bill that has been moderated but includes many of his priorities.

If the governor decides to use his constitutionally vested power to veto legislation or to roll out the never-before-used line-item veto, Republicans will be left with a complicated choice.

They can stand with their governor — and risk a government shutdown — or they can stand by their word and the deal they struck with Democrats.

One option could infuriate their base, which appears to care little about the prospects of a government shutdown. The other would put them firmly in the sights of everyone else.

 

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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