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There are good reasons that most Maine biennial budgets over the last century have been bipartisan. Because state budgets are a reflection of priorities for the upcoming years, drafting spending plans with input from a diversity of people, especially lawmakers regardless of political party, typically results in better results. This collaboration and cooperation often carries over to other legislative work.
This year, of course, is no ordinary year. We’re in the second year of a pandemic and lawmaking — as well as everyday life — is different and often fraught with difficulties.
That, however, is not a reason to abandon a bipartisan approach to budgeting. Yet, that is what Democrats in the Maine Legislature are doing. They hope to pass a budget next week, with or without Republican support. Most Maine laws take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, unless they are emergency legislation, which requires a two-thirds affirmative vote in both the House and Senate. If a budget is passed early next week with a simple majority vote, it can go into effect before July 1, when the state’s next fiscal year begins. If there is no budget by then, a two-thirds vote will be needed to have a new budget before the new fiscal year.
We understand some of the reasons behind the Democrats’ approach: Finalizing a budget now gives communities and school departments certainty as they prepare their own spending plans. It avoids a potential contentious fight in a few months and, worse, the possibility of a state shutdown if lawmakers can’t agree to a spending plan. It would allow the Legislature to adjourn next week, at a time when new coronavirus cases are on the rise and safety precautions are still needed (but remain contentious), and to return later this year when it may be less risky.
There are a lot of downsides, however. Passing a budget with just approval from Democratic lawmakers will likely poison the legislative atmosphere for the remainder of the session, which runs into 2022. If they are largely left out of the budget process, Republican lawmakers will have little incentive to work with Democrats, who control the state House and Senate and the governor’s office.
For one, there will likely be no bond package this year, or next. Gov. Janet Mills laid out an ambitious plan of state borrowing for broadband, career training and child care, among other things. There are also numerous bond proposals pending in the Legislature. Since bonds need approval from two-thirds of both the House and Senate before going to voters, it is unlikely that any of these proposals — other than the annual transportation bond that Republicans traditionally support — will move forward.
Democrats are likely calculating that the state can forgo bonding because of the $1.6 billion that Maine is expected to receive from the latest relief package passed by Congress. Being bailed out by the federal government is no reason to skip bipartisan budget negotiations, however.
To be sure, the Democratic budget document, which largely mirrors the $8.4 billion two-year budget proposal offered by Mills last month, is not a bad plan with the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic and its impacts on our economy and lives. The general approach — to largely keep spending in check, avoiding both drastic cuts or big spending increases, makes sense. Ruling out a last-minute stalemate and state government shutdown this summer is also good.
However, Democrats are jumping through procedural hoops and speeding ahead without the typical deliberation and bipartisan engagement and dialogue in order to get this done with just barely enough time to spare. And it looks like they’re going to have to quickly adjourn the entire Legislature to make it work.
Some Republican lawmakers have shown that they are more interesting in ideology than the practicality of governing. But the recent breakthrough on supplemental budget negotiations was a step in the right direction, even though a group of Republicans stalled the process near the finish line. Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated the bipartisan success of that eventual deal. Though it took too long and Republican demands shifted, it did come together. Turning away from that collaboration rather than building on it is a step backward from Democrats.
We hate to think that there is no way to bridge the divide between parties in Augusta. Forging ahead with a majority biennial budget endangers any future efforts at bipartisanship and sets a bad tone in Augusta.