If Janet Mills is serious about bipartisanship, she should genuinely include Republicans in the process to reach a bipartisan budget deal.
Wearing her L.L. Bean boots, Gov. Janet Mills walks into the Augusta Civic Center on Jan. 4, 2023, before taking the oath of office for the second time. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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In any legislative session, there are a lot of things that are proposed and debated. Thousands of bills are submitted each year, and we are already getting a picture of what those proposals look like.

As of the writing of this column, more than 150 bill titles have been released, ranging from the vague ( An Act to Amend the Cannabis Laws), to the silly ( An Act to Restore the Former State of Maine Flag), to the paternalistic ( An Act to Prohibit Leaving a Child Under 10 Years of Age Alone in a Motor Vehicle).

There are bills to minimize the propagation of invasive aquatic plants, bills to prohibit the taxation of drinking water,and bills to regulate open burning and recreational campfires.

Yet, none of those ideas will hold a candle to the importance of the biennial state budget, which was released by Gov. Janet Mills Wednesday. The state budget is an enormous document that allocates billions of dollars and is the primary driving factor for what state government does in a given two-year period.

During the 2022 campaign for governor, Mills was explicit in congratulating herself for “working across the aisle” as a bipartisan leader, bringing together Republicans and Democrats to get common-sense things done. She told us that she would once again govern that way in her second term.

Yet this is also the governor who, together with her allies in the Legislature, slammed through a highly partisan majority budget in March 2021 with only Democratic votes, completely cutting the Republicans out of the process.

That option is once again on the table this year, though Mills is insisting she doesn’t want to go there. In a wide-ranging interview with the Portland Press Herald in December, Mills was adamant that she would be seeking a bipartisan budget deal, which is how budgets are typically passed in Maine.

Privately, I have spoken to many right-leaning lawmakers who fear Mills is talking a big game about bipartisanship, but is uninterested in it. If they push for any substantive ideas of theirs in this budget, they believe she will invent an excuse and ram through her budget with only Democratic votes.

From these conversations, I know this is one of the main reasons that Republicans in the Legislature gave her what she wanted on the heating assistance bill, making only minor changes to her initial proposal and voting it through after insisting on a public hearing. They were trying to buy a seat at the table.

But a true spirit of bipartisanship isn’t conditional. It isn’t offered only when the other side lays down and gives you what you want. If the governor truly believes in this mythos she has created around herself that she’s a reasonable person interested in working with everyone, she should prove it. She should explicitly rule out pursuing a majority budget, and actually invite the Republicans into the budget-writing process.

Democrats are in the majority and Republicans are in the minority, so I’m not foolish enough to suggest that the Republicans would (or should) “win” in a budget negotiation. No matter how well they are treated, Democrats are going to set the agenda and get most of what they want. But if Republicans were actually made a part of the process, and there was a genuine attempt to incorporate some of their ideas, that would be a win for Mills, Republicans, the state’s political culture and the budget itself.

If Republicans are, in fact, a part of the process, I have a fairly simple suggestion for them: insist on structural reform to Maine’s tax code, but make it rational and something Democrats won’t hate.

With Maine repeatedly sending out hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time check payments to taxpayers, and dumping hundreds of millions more into any number of immediate spending proposals, there has to be room for making a permanent, structural change to Maine’s tax system.

But rather than the typical broad Republican tax-cut proposal, why not simply deal with the shockingly high marginal tax rates on those making under $100,000 a year, and completely eliminate income taxes for all Mainers at a certain level, say $50,000 a year and below?

This would avoid the typical “tax cuts for the rich” rhetoric, it would provide real relief to the middle-class, and most importantly it would not be a one-time gimmick, but a real and lasting change.

Pass that and everyone, including Mills and the Republicans, will win.

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...