During the extensive floor debates last week before the Democratic majority passed what they described as a “continuing services budget” with a vote that fell strictly along party lines, Republicans made a lot of hay over what they saw as a deeply unfair process. What they actually appear to take issue with, however, is democracy itself.
For those blissfully unaware of state budget discourse, Democrats opted to pass a budget that only covered the state’s existing spending obligations so that negotiations over any significant funding changes could be made without the threat of a state shutdown hovering in the background.
Republicans, who by their own admission underperformed in last fall’s election and failed to win control over either legislative chamber, were angry that Democrats were flexing their lawful authority to keep the government afloat without promising to include tax cuts in the next round of budget negotiations. (Tax cuts that analysts say would primarily benefit wealthy Mainers).
Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) called Democrats’ actions a “perversion of the constitutional budget process.”
However, according to state law, a non-emergency budget bill voted on by the end of March can pass with a simple majority. Otherwise, negotiations can drag on well into June and, if two-thirds of the legislature can’t agree on the terms by the start of the fiscal year on July 1, the government can shut down, as it did in 2017.
As Sen. Peggy Rotundo (D-Androscoggin), chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, noted on the floor of the Senate, a continuing services budget process such as this had been the norm until about 17 years ago. State law never mandated that the budget process be bipartisan.
Many of the aggrieved members of the GOP compared their lack of input in the budget process to being an actually oppressed person, which — given the demographic make-up of the Republican lawmakers and legislature as a whole — is pretty egregious.
Sen. Matt Pouliot (R-Kennebec) asked, “How many people came to the legislature to fight for minorities? Well, we are a minority. Who’s going to be our voice?”
A number of representatives referenced Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts in the current legislature, which is the most diverse in history and under the leadership of the first Black Speaker of the House, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), who has helped drive many of those equity efforts.
Rep. Gary Drinkwater (R-Milford) said, “The slogan in the 131st [Legislature] is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Madame Speaker, today equality is not allowed in this chamber. What is about to happen, the majority is about to say, ‘Equality be damned.’”
“In all of our committees we’ve heard a lot about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. I’d like to remind our colleagues across the aisle that that includes us as well,” said Rep. Dick Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro).
Others focused more on what Libby and other American conservatives often refer to as the “tyranny of the majority.”
“This majority budget is an insult to every Maine citizen that was not heard from through their elected officials’ voice,” said Rep. Sheila Lyman (R-Livermore Falls). “Here we are today being shut down and silenced by one party, the Democrats and the majority budget.”
Another way to think about majority rule is…democracy. Frankly, the reason Democrats had the power to pass a continuing services budget is because the majority of Maine voters chose them to make decisions on behalf of the electorate. Alternatively, a two-thirds budget process gives an outsized amount of power to a party that the majority of Mainers voted against. How is that fair?
(It’s worth noting that this is not the only government process that permits minority rule. The U.S. Senate and Electoral College are just two examples of such anti-democratic norms on the federal level.)
This is all to say elections have consequences.
And despite their grandstanding, Republicans were guilty of blatantly deceptive maneuvers when they last controlled state government. During the 2011 legislative session, the GOP lured Democrats to support a significant tax cuts package only to renege on their promise not to slash social programs in the 2012 supplemental budget (which they passed as a majority). I’m sure many sitting in that chamber have not forgotten that.
The value of our lawmakers getting out of their trenches and working together is not lost on me. There were also a number of passionate speeches, particularly in the House, about how well the two sides have been working together this session — and I believe them to be sincere. But who can blame Democrats for wanting to negotiate their funding priorities without the threat of a state shutdown?
If you think about it, it’s a threat that really only ever works to Republicans’ advantage. A government shutdown is only problematic if you are of the belief that a strong, functional government is important. If your aim is to weaken the government — undermine its value, privatize its functions, lessen its authority — as is the case with many Republicans, including former Gov. Paul LePage, then a government shutdown is arguably either the goal or not such a big deal.
It really comes down to this: if Republicans want a voice in the budget process, they need to get serious and stop trying to ram through inequitable tax cuts or roll back the state’s popular abortion protections. Rather than focusing their energy on playing the victim or holding bipartisan priorities hostage, the party should focus on proving it can govern responsibly. If Republicans can’t do that, it’s clear Maine people would rather someone else take the lead.