AUGUSTA, Maine — With less than a month until adjournment, “divided reports” has become the theme for the first session of the 127th Legislature. By the time the final gavel drops, that theme may have morphed to “the session of no progress.”
“Divided reports” is a term that means little to most Mainers outside the State House. But under the dome, it’s a clear sign of partisan discord. The term refers to when the Legislature’s policy committees are unable to reach unanimous consensus on proposed legislation.
As of Friday afternoon, that has happened 329 times. Votes at the committee level — especially when they’re divided on party lines — are often indications of how bills will fare in the full Legislature. While not death sentences, divided reports signal a poor prognosis for any bill’s chances of becoming law.
The fact that Democrats hold the majority in the House and Republicans have it in the Senate means any bill that makes it into law will do so with support from both parties. With Republicans and Democrats digging in their ideological heels on issues they have identified as priorities, it’s starting to look like neither party will accomplish many of the goals each laid out with optimism at the start of the session.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. The U.S. Congress has been mired in gridlock for years. Though Republicans now control both chambers on Capitol Hill, Barack Obama is Democrats’ trump card — and a sure bet that the most ideologically divisive issues will stagnate.
Here are warning signs that the Maine Legislature is on a path to becoming Congress Jr.
Not many bills have made it through the process. According to recent data from the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, more than 1,400 bills and resolves were proposed this year. About 111 have become law as of Friday afternoon, according to the Legislature’s bill-tracking website. As of the beginning of last week, only 550 bills had seen final disposition, which equates to less than 30 percent.
So far, Republicans and Democrats have refused to budge on some key issues. On Wednesday, Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee rejected Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to drug-test all recipients and applicants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides a cash benefit for families who fall below certain income thresholds. It was a signal that though both parties are interested in what LePage calls welfare reform, progress on this issue will be as difficult as ever. Mud-slinging over the issue by the two parties has grown more intense.
Conversely, Democrats have put considerable effort into trying to raise Maine’s minimum wage, but Republicans are entrenched against it because they say it would hurt businesses and kill jobs. There is zero chance of any adjustment coming out of the Legislature this year. The AFL-CIO and progressive Maine People’s Alliance recognize that and have banded together in a citizens initiative that if successful would ask statewide voters in 2016 to raise the wage to $12 an hour by 2020.
There has been some cross-over support. On Thursday, the Senate voted 24-11, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support of a bill to limit the time anyone can collect General Assistance benefits to nine months in every five-year period. That bill might have problems winning support from enough Democrats in the House to send it to LePage.
Even some bills with near-unanimous support are being held up. One of the controversial bills this session is the so-called $38 million “and” bill, which would fix a typo in 2013 legislation that has a huge impact on funding for energy conservation projects overseen by Efficiency Maine. It was controversial because LePage and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette tried to attach the creation of a Cabinet-level energy commissioner and staff to the typo fix legislation. The House of Representatives ended up voting 138-1 in favor of the simple “and” fix on May 6. Despite the strong bipartisan support in the House, that bill has yet to be brought to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Meanwhile, Fredette’s version of the “and” bill remains in the Democratic-controlled Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee without a recommendation. It appears that Republicans and Democrats are playing a game of which bill is the cart and which is the horse.
If there has been major progress on the budget, it’s not obvious. Members of the Appropriations Committee have been debating LePage’s biennial budget proposal for weeks but have taken relatively few votes. Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, who co-chairs the committee had said that his goal was to have the budget voted out by Friday, but Friday afternoon, committee staff announced that there would be no work sessions over the weekend or Memorial Day.
Hamper now hopes to have a budget to deliver to the full Legislature by May 29.
The major question around the budget is whether the final version will include any major tax reforms. LePage’s original proposal certainly did and since then both Republicans and Democrats have released their own plans. Both parties, however, have drawn lines in the sand that are ideologically miles apart. As recently as Friday, LePage and Republican leaders in the House and Senate issued a statement insisting that “meaningful tax cuts” be included in the new budget.
But the definition of “meaningful” has softened since LePage introduced what supporters called a revolutionary tax reform plan in January.
With state revenues on the upswing and lawmakers predicting a revenue surplus this year in the tens of millions of dollars, pressure is increasing from some quarters to pass a state budget by June 30 that avoids a government shutdown by carving tax reform out of the equation and passing a budget for the next two years that’s essentially the same as the current one.
Where does LePage fit into the mix? Having conducted a series of town hall meetings across the state and a pattern of delivering harsh criticisms to lawmakers, LePage couldn’t be trying any harder to gain support for his tax reform goals. Despite that, there is no question that lawmakers have mostly abandoned his budget proposal, at least as far as it involves tax reform.
While Democrats are saying a “meaningful” tax reform deal is unlikely, LePage, Fredette and Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport said in a joint statement that they remain committed to eliminating the income tax.
Unless a majority of the rest of the Legislature agrees — which would have to include some Democrats — the governor is likely to veto the second biennial budget bill in a row. The pressure will then be on Republicans, who have shown that their initial support of bills often doesn’t mean they won’t later support LePage’s vetoes.
Opposition to some of his welfare reform initiatives will also leave the governor disappointed. With two of his priority proposals going up on smoke, it might seem like LePage’s influence is waning, but it isn’t. He is still the leader of the Republican Party in Maine and he still has the power in the State House and support in the public to cause major problems for his political opponents.
LePage has repeatedly threatened to work against the re-election of legislators, including Republicans, who oppose his tax reform plan and will keep the pressure on for a statewide vote in 2016 to repeal the income tax by 2020.
What’s it all mean? This Legislature is unlikely to enact major changes to its own priorities, such as tax reform, welfare reform, broadband Internet expansion, supports for job creation, a raise in the minimum wage, requiring voters to show photo identification and campaign finance reform.
From the outside, that might seem like a failure. On the other hand, the nation’s founders designed government to work this way so that whatever does end up in law is presumably more reflective of society’s wants and needs than the proposals that come from either side of the ideological spectrum.
During a slow, steady economic recovery and absent fiscal or governance crises, a “do-nothing” Legislature may simply reflect that Mainers have settled into a comfortable zone where fights among partisan politicians have little impact outside the dome.