The new Maine Legislature is sworn in, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Last Wednesday, new and returning lawmakers who were victorious in the November elections were brought to Augusta and sworn in to the 131st Maine Legislature. Eighty-two Democrats, 67 Republicans and two independents took the oath of office in the House, and 22 Democrats and 13 Republicans did the same in the Senate.

Before they were shown where the bathroom was, Gov. Janet Mills was already asking them to rush through a massive spending package of $474 million, an unprecedented ask of lawmakers on their first day in office.

It was an odd choice for Mills, who campaigned as a collaborative, dealmaking centrist who was interested in working “across the aisle” with the other side to craft “common-sense” legislation that everyone could be happy with. To try to jam through a spending bill of that magnitude that quickly without any kind of public hearing, or really any level of detailed scrutiny on the proposal, is not exactly making good on that promise.

Instead, as someone who witnessed the legislative back and forth as I talked with Senate Republicans about this bill, it looks to me like a coldly political play. The governor likely knows that the bill, despite it being a goody bag of kickbacks to Maine voters in the way of checks, energy subsidies, and emergency housing assistance, would be classified only as a “heating aid bill” by the media who covered the legislative dispute.

This would, of course, make opposition to it uncomfortable enough that she could likely get the needed votes, which is exactly why House Republicans decided to seek changes to the bill, such as a broader eligibility for the heating assistance. That decision was based in a desire to live to fight another day, politically speaking, while exerting some small influence over what they considered inevitable.

It is no wonder they chose that path, given that supporters of the bill were saying that the bill was a matter of life or death.

It isn’t a matter of life and death, though. When reached for comment last week, Maine Housing Authority spokesperson Scott Thistle confirmed that the program through which heating assistance would be delivered, the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program, was already funded. “[W]e do anticipate that LIHEAP funding will cover all the eligible applications that will be taken through the end of the program year in July,” he said.

The notion that the bill needed to be passed, and passed immediately, or people will die, is simply untrue.

The administration strategy was, to me, simple to decode: maximize pressure, minimize time, to hopefully get what they wanted.  

If certain lawmakers by contrast don’t think the government should be constantly sending out checks to people like some kind of rich uncle trying to buy their love, too bad. If they had concerns that the heating oil assistance was poorly targeted and perhaps even redundant, tough. If they were interested in using excess state revenue to make some minor structural reforms to government, sit down. Vote for it, anyway.

Pass the bill, and pass it now, seemed to be the message.

The governor’s office, for its part, is claiming that Senate Republicans were pulling the rug out from under everyone’s feet. There was a deal, they claim, and the maniac “minority of a minority” in the upper chamber torpedoed it in some kind of politically-motivated stunt.

“It’s clear that Senate Republicans did not want to engage as the vote drew closer,” Mills spokesperson Scott Ogden said Tuesday. “They simply wanted to say no, and now the people of Maine are paying for it as temperatures drop.”

Senate Republican leader Trey Stewart disputed that notion in very strong language.“She absolutely knew the votes weren’t there and tried to strong arm them at the last minute,” he said.

In the end, I believe there will absolutely be a deal struck, and an affirmative vote on something will happen. Already Republican Sen. Rick Bennett and Democratic Sen. Nicole Grohoski have proposed what they are referring to as a “compromise” bill, shrinking some of the original spending, and rearranging the assistance targets.

Whether that is the vehicle through which a final passage takes place, or it is some other bill, something will pass. Even the Republicans who voted against the original proposal on Wednesday say it will happen, and happen relatively quickly.

But in the end, this one moment may be a harbinger of things to come, with much bigger fights over the state budget looming. When they begin, a key question for Republicans will be whether or not they have the stomach to fight against the growing impulse to turn government into an ATM machine, with the public treasury used as a slush fund for bread and circuses. One can only hope.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...