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Two years ago, when the Democrats decided to push through a partisan budget, Republicans were incensed. I remember many conversations with lawmakers on the right after the hilariously named “back to basics” budget was passed, all of whom called it a betrayal.
To pass the most important document in state government in such a harshly partisan way was a shock, to say the least. Rep. Sawin Millett, a budget expert widely respected by both parties, blasted the administration in a floor speech, saying to legislative Democrats, “it sounds like and feels like you don’t want input from the minority party or the unenrolled members.”
The sour taste in their mouths was made worse by the fact that Gov. Janet Mills had accused Republicans of threatening to shut down state government to justify herself, even though no one suggested anything close to that. House Republican Leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham flatly denied before the vote that a government shutdown was ever talked about. Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake called the notion that Republicans wanted to shut down the government a “mythical idea.”
Each and every one of those Republicans I talked to swore that they would remember the betrayal.
And yet, just a short time later, a supplemental budget passed the Legislature overwhelmingly 119 to 25 in the House and 32 to 3 in the Senate. The story of how that happened is a masterclass in political gamesmanship on the governor’s part, and a testament to the naivete of Republican lawmakers.
The “back to basics” spending bill that was passed along party lines at the end of March 2021 was designed to force through the most contentious elements of Mills’ agenda, checking the budget box as finished to guarantee that the Republicans would have no remaining leverage.
Then, afterward, the governor dangled catnip in the face of Republicans kittens, with additional items that were more supported by the GOP leadership to hopefully entice them. She also offered to “give in” on some of their priorities — like the now famous rebate checks — if they would support the supplemental at the end of June.
While Republicans were angry, they fell for the trap. Like Oliver Twist fed an insignificant amount of slop, they went to Mills with an empty bowl and groveled for something, anything to satiate their hunger for relevance. They convinced themselves that “being at the negotiating table” and making an awful budget “less awful” was worth compromising their values. They also thought that they would get credit from voters for making deals and fighting for the rebate checks.
Instead, they got a proverbial ladle to the forehead. The governor got them to give their blessing of what she did, and in so doing, she was able to claim in her reelection campaign that she “worked across the aisle,” even though she did little of the kind. She also got to claim credit for the very idea — the checks — that Republicans foolishly thought they would get credit for.
Rather than stand up and aggressively call out Mills for her gamesmanship and then refuse to endorse what she did by voting for the supplemental, they essentially said to the people of Maine “we don’t stand for anything,” while handing her a political gift she would use to beat them in the 2022 campaign.
Flash forward to today, and the exact same script is playing out, exactly how I predicted ( repeatedly) it would. Late last week, talks between Republicans and Democrats broke down after Democrats refused to even consider, as part of the biennial budget, a very modest compromise in a meager $200 million structural tax revision, entirely aimed at low and middle-income Mainers.
Again the Democrats would pursue a majority-only budget. Again it was being billed as a “stripped-down” spending bill, to be filled out later in a supplemental.
Mills will almost certainly try to entice Republicans to give her actions their stamp of approval by later dangling meaningless and insignificant “concessions” in front of them, hoping that they once again neuter themselves politically by agreeing to support a big-spending supplemental budget.
If the Republicans want to win again, they need to learn the lesson they didn’t learn in 2021. “Having a seat at the table” and making tiny changes on the margins is not worth corrupting their core philosophy. Cooperating with the governor on a supplemental budget will just leave GOP fingerprints on her bad ideas, and hasten the journey to political irrelevance.
Let them have their victory. Don’t participate, it isn’t worth it. Republicans should walk away, and focus on winning the next election. Give Mainers a clear vision of what they stand for, and make the Democrats regret what they have done to them. Twice.