Let’s start with a snap quiz. Question: Which is democratic?
a) Passing a budget with the votes of the majority of legislators.
b) Entering a government capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power.
The answer was (a). But you knew that, right?
Yet, as a majority of Maine legislators passed a budget last month along party lines — with final votes of 76-48 in the House and 22-9 in the Senate — some Republicans reverted to highly hyperbolic rhetoric.
State Rep. John Andrews called the recent budget process an “unconstitutional power grab,” while right-wing pundit Steve Robinson wrote the budget was crafted and passed by “authoritarian Democrats.” Rep. Laurel Libby termed what happened a “perversion of the constitutional budget process.”
Other Republican legislators classified themselves as minorities who needed protection. For example, Sen. Matt Pouliot queried, “How many people came to the legislature to fight for minorities? Well, we are a minority. Who’s going to be our voice?”
Rep. Gary Drinkwater claimed hundreds of thousands of Maine voters and hundreds of towns were “disenfranchised” by passing a budget with a majority of votes.
Now, none of that makes sense. If Drinkwater was right, every law not passed unanimously would disenfranchise voters whose representatives didn’t back it. That’s not what disenfranchisement, which refers to unfair limits on voting rights, means.
And the way the budget was passed simply isn’t unconstitutional since the Maine Constitution doesn’t require more than majorities to pass one.
It is true that, to avoid a government shutdown, adopting the Maine budget would require two-thirds votes from each chamber — but only if it was passed on April 1 or later. That’s because the budget and other bills passed by the legislature do not go into effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, unless they meet those supermajority thresholds and are thus considered emergency measures that apply immediately.
The March budget votes came after Republicans left budget negotiations due to a disagreement about proposed tax cuts, which they say will most help low- and middle-income families but an analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found would give the most to the wealthiest and little or nothing to the purported targeted families.
There will be another part of the budget requiring two-thirds, which could revisit tax policy.
As Democratic Sen. Peggy Rotundo, the chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee explained, this initial section, the “continuing services budget,” provides “predictability and stability” and prevents a shutdown on July 1.
Rotundo also pointed out that, “Until about 17 years ago, a two-part approach to the state budget was considered the norm in Augusta. The idea is that the Legislature begins with current services, the baseline budget and initiatives authorized in law and then dives into the initiatives with the leftover revenue. At times this approach has garnered strong bipartisan support. It’s not a radical idea.”
It’s unclear if the GOP purveyors of hyperbolic rhetoric know about this history.
Some of them have spoken unwisely before.
At an August 2021 rally against vaccine mandates for health care workers, Libby shouted “To be clear, this is war!”
And consider the views of Andrews about the 2020 election and its aftermath. After voting against a 2022 resolution honoring law enforcement officers who defended the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and condemning the violence of that day, Andrews stated “I don’t have all of the facts” to describe what happened. He also would not say whether he believes President Biden was legitimately elected or whether he thinks the election was stolen, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Andrews, to his credit, said he didn’t condone violence, but his stated uncertainty feeds distrust and assaults on our democracy.
The highly charged references to authoritarianism and disenfranchisement for what’s a constitutional budget process are also inappropriate and damaging to our body politic. After all, it’s certainly democratic to pass a budget with the votes of the majority of legislators. Or did anyone get that answer wrong in the quiz?