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Democrats in Washington and Augusta are betting on policy over process.
In the first example, President Joe Biden and Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan using a procedural maneuver that allowed them to avoid a filibuster in the U.S. Senate.
The results: A massive policy win for Democrats, critical aid to state and local governments, and direct relief for millions of Americans struggling with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not a single Republican supported the bill, which is overwhelmingly popular. Democrats are gambling that the positive impacts on individual lives, including a major reduction in childhood poverty, and on the economy will wash away any voter skepticism generated by a lack of Republican support.
Two stories broke on Monday that suggests Democrats are finished playing games on the policies that they ran on during the election.
In Washington, the Biden administration leaked details of a $3 trillion infrastructure plan that would invest not only in roads and bridges, but also social infrastructure like childcare and universal pre-K. The leak also telegraphed that Democrats may once again use a procedural move to avoid a Senate filibuster.
In Augusta, Democrats unveiled a plan to pass a baseline, two-year budget of about $8.2 billion. They have set up an aggressive timeline that would have the Legislature finish with the budget before early April.
They have three primary goals, two of which are practical and one procedural. Practically, Democrats in the Legislature, with the blessing of Gov. Janet Mills I am told, want to provide local governments and schools districts with the baseline information they need to plan their budgets, factoring in that more federal aid is on the way.
Two, they want to avoid the contentious fighting with Republicans that prolonged passage of a supplemental budget earlier this year, and if repeated could threaten the state with a government shutdown later this year.
Three, by moving quickly to pass a budget next week, they can avoid the procedural requirement that the budget receive two-thirds support in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate.
Laws enacted by the Legislature generally take effect 90 days after adjournment, unless they are considered “emergency” legislation and are enacted with two-thirds support. Democrats are saying they intend to pass a majority budget quickly and then adjourn so that the budget can take effect by July 1.
It’s a procedural move — more common in the past than recently — that shuts the minority party out of negotiations.
Passing a majority budget is a little like bungee jumping. More people climb the platform than take the leap.
The move has risks. Republicans are likely to react with every tactic possible to delay legislative action and the chance for bipartisan cooperation on other legislation becomes even more remote. Maine can kiss goodbye to bonds for the next two years.
The budget could also be subject to a People’s Veto — if Republicans could manage to collect the necessary 63,067 signatures necessary to put a question on the ballot.
With an influx of federal investments that could include even more money for infrastructure (typically supported by state-level bonding), Democrats may be calculating that they can get by without bonds, which require two-thirds support in the Legislature to go to voters.
More significantly, Democrats know that any budget that can win enough Republican support to pass with two-thirds would likely leave them short of fulfilling their campaign promises to voters.
By moving a baseline budget now — that avoids the potential of a government shutdown this summer — Democrats also know that they can come back later and unilaterally direct federal dollars coming from the American Rescue Plan and any additional state revenue beyond the base.
It’s bold. It’s not without risk. And it will give voters an opportunity to decide for themselves whether they like the way Democrats govern.
Republicans have always been more willing to toss procedure and process aside to enact their policy priorities. Gov. Paul LePage was willing to ignore the law, as was President Donald Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stole a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Republicans jammed through a massive tax giveaway in which most of the benefits went to corporations and the wealthy.
Democrats — sensing that the country and state are ready for action to address significant problems, now — are ready to push their advantage and be judged on the impact of their policies.
Do voters care if a budget passes with a majority versus a two-thirds vote? I doubt it, and apparently Democrat leaders doubt it, too.