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

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As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

This is the tale of two legislative majorities.

The Republican majority in Washington was enthralled in foolishness. On the 15th ballot, Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the 118th House of Representatives. It was the longest effort spent electing a speaker in more than a century.

A minority of the majority had very strong objections. They made them remarkably clear. And, ultimately, they were able to get several of their concerns met, paving the way for McCarthy’s election.

Whatever the wisdom in the rule changes adopted by the GOP-led House, getting there laid fractures bare to the world. Foreign adversaries utilizing social media to spread hate and discontent now have clear target packages available to them, sent worldwide via C-SPAN.

It was a mess.

The in-fighting, by itself, is not the issue. Having strong disagreements within groups is often healthy. If they remain professional, it can lead to better results. Steel sharpens steel.

Yet those fights need not occur on live television. Transparency can be valuable in government, but opacity has a role as well. Closed doors provide freedom to speak candidly. You don’t need to look over your shoulder to see who might be watching, whether it might be a headline writer with an overzealous affinity for words like “blast” or Russian information operatives trying to influence public opinion.

That brings us to the other legislative majority.

Maine Democrats control the State House. Gov. Janet Mills released her budget proposal this week. Taking them all at their word, they want to work with Republicans to enact a final budget that incorporates GOP input.

It is wise, both aspirationally and practically.

Maine’s affinity for bipartisan budgets is a happy quirk. It technically isn’t required.

The reason why “two-thirds” budgets exist is because the Maine Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in order for a law to pass as an emergency. Without the “emergency preamble,” laws are not effective until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

As an “emergency,” it can take effect immediately. That’s half the story.

The reason why budgets are normally “emergencies” is because Maine’s fiscal year begins on July 1. Without a legally-effective budget on that date, we move into a state shutdown.  

This typically leaves the majority party — whoever it may be — in a bind. They need to either pass a budget by a majority and adjourn before April 1 to start the 90-day clock, or they need to work with the minority party and get their buy-in to add the “emergency” preamble.

But wait, there’s more. If they force through a majority budget containing only the majority’s priorities, like Democrats did under Gov. John Baldacci in 2005, then they will need to either pause working on the hundreds of other bills under consideration or reconvene in a “special” session.  

If they do the latter, legislators can ultimately start earning extra pay daily, spending even more taxpayer dollars, and reducing the pressure to get their work done. And it would all stem from an inability to find consensus with Republicans.

As Maine moves into the budget process, Democrats should learn from Congressional Republicans. That process should incorporate public engagement. But shutting the doors and hashing it out with Republicans in Augusta has value, too. While the Russians may not be watching closely, political groups and lobbyists will invariably circle under the dome.  

Getting the buy-in of the minority is critical to passing an “emergency” budget. Their concerns and thoughts will need to be considered and incorporated, even if the majority will inevitably prevail.  

Building a bipartisan spending plan will take effort, but passing a two-thirds budget is a far, far better thing to do than running a roughshod majority budget.  

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.