Over the past week, something unexpected and — of late at least — rather remarkable happened: bipartisanship in the Maine Legislature.
The powerful Appropriations Committee, which seemed to have broken down in a remarkably public partisan spat over a bill that used reserves from the state’s rainy day fund to pay for municipal revenue sharing, rediscovered its inner soul of compromise. Rather than continue to push their amended version of LD 1807, Gov. Paul LePage’s innocuous bill to restore the rainy day fund, Democrats voted out his original proposal.
With all Republicans on board, it was a unanimous committee report.
The Republicans, in return, voted for a supplemental budget that apparently included spending priorities the Democrats had previously attached to the governor’s rainy day bill. Moving these initiatives to the supplemental budget, rather than attaching them to an unrelated bill, makes more logical sense, in addition to making passage possible. This supplemental budget fixes the $40 million budget gap for the current fiscal year without including any new tax increases, which would have made a unanimous report impossible. Although they may not have agreed with the new spending in the budget, it wasn’t so onerous that Republicans withdrew support.
The importance of the unanimous report from Appropriations on both bills cannot be overstated. Other legislators usually place a great deal of faith in their colleagues on Appropriations, who spend many long days poring over every detail of the state budget. The men and women who sit on this committee are truly the experts. While there are no certainties, a unanimous report usually leads to overwhelming bipartisan support on the floor as well. That was indicative after news of the agreement broke, as leadership on both sides of the aisle offered tepid support rather than an immediate negative response.
The committee report on the rainy day bill would seem to clear the way for the governor to release his hold on bonds already approved by Maine voters. Regardless of whether he does so immediately or only after the bill is signed, this will be a boost not only for Maine’s economy, but also for cooperation in Augusta.
Legislators seemed relieved by these sudden developments. Rep. Tyler Clark, R-Easton, who sits on Appropriations, said, “I am glad that partisan politics were finally set aside so we could do our work in Appropriations. Now that LD 1807 is a stand-alone bill, and the rainy day fund will be restored, we can finally release the bonds without jeopardizing the state’s credit rating. The FY 2014 budget is a good compromise that will ensure that the state government will pay its bills on time.”
Although they will use different language and make different points, hopefully these sentiments will be echoed by legislators on both sides of the aisle as more details emerge regarding the agreement over these coming days. Next week, as the bills proceed to floor debate, amendments will be offered and there will be plenty of discussion, but perhaps they can be passed without the same kind of partisan brinksmanship we saw over the budget last session.
This isn’t to say that all budget work is done this year. This deal mainly fixes the 2014 hole, with a few 2015 spending initiatives. It doesn’t address the Department of Health and Human Services shortfall in the 2015 budget, which is approximately $40 million. That will be a significant challenge in and of itself and will no doubt result in new partisan confrontations.
Still, this week’s compromise was an extremely positive sign. If the Legislature were able to quickly pass the bills and the governor signed them, a new tone could be set for this session that might make real cooperation on the next shortfall plausible.
Jim Fossel, an Alna native, has worked for Sen. Susan Collins and Maine House Republican Leader Josh Tardy. He has volunteered on numerous campaigns, including Peter Mills’ 2006 campaign for governor.