This year, Democrats own the Blaine House and both chambers of the Maine Legislature. With that ace in hand, they are moving at speed to try to quickly pass a majority budget, a feat that has not occurred since 2005.
For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from Republicans, it is not some underhanded, back room, dead-of-night subterfuge. The budget is a bill like any other. OK, it’s a very long, very consequential bill, but in terms of process, it is no different.
Once a bill has been enacted by the Legislature, meaning passed in identical form by both chambers, and is signed by the governor, it is set to take effect “90 days after the recess of the session of the Legislature in which it was passed.” Thus sayeth the Maine constitution, and it means bills enacted are on hold for 90 days before taking effect in one big clump, usually in early fall.
The reason for the 90-day pause? It gives the citizenry time to object to the legislation by way of a citizens’ initiative through the so-called “people’s veto.” This happens by way of a petition that must be signed by 10 percent of those casting votes for governor in the preceding gubernatorial election. This process is also laid out in the constitution.
This is how it happens for most bills. The exception, also in the constitution, is for bills that are deemed an emergency and must, or should, or at least the sponsor hopes, not have to wait the 90 days. In that case the bill must carry an “emergency preamble” stating the “facts constituting the emergency.” All bills passed as an emergency take effect immediately after being signed by the governor but, and it’s a big “but,” they must be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Legislature.
In the case of the budget, it is essential that it take effect by the July 1 start of a new fiscal year, or state employees cannot be paid and all kinds of other mayhem reigns. The budget is the ultimate monster bill. It is a rare legislature that is able to get it together 90 days in advance of adjournment, so most often it must be passed as an emergency.
Very rarely does the majority party have enough seats for a two-thirds majority in either chamber, so emergency measures almost always need bipartisan buy-in. This is why the minority party, meaning Republicans this session, is so fierce about a “majority” budget; it cuts them out of the picture.
This emergency authority is a mixed blessing. Yes, the majority party gets to craft the whole kit and caboodle, very yummy for them, but it can inspire rogue party members to hold out for pet items if every vote is needed. Worse than that, it incites bitterness and discontent among the minority, opening wounds that will not heal for the rest of the session. That’s a bad place to be when (not if) the majority needs the minority. Meanwhile, said minority sits in its caucus room plotting revenge.
Democrats say this is a budget that simply continues current state spending with very few additions. New proposals, they say, should be part of a subsequent “supplemental” budget. They are also making much of fending off a state shutdown in July, really a hypothetical at this point. Also hypothetical, but highly likely, is that few if any bond proposals from the majority will see the light of day, since all bonds require a two-thirds vote, too.
The majority budget proposal will need one maneuver in which the governor must play a role. The constitution says non-emergency legislation will take effect “90 days after the recess of the session…” To start the 90-day meter running, the Legislature will have to recess.
The 130th Legislature is in no way ready to recess. The session would normally run until June, and the customary machinery of the Legislature has been severely hampered by the pandemic. The necessary procedural gymnastics will require the Legislature to adjourn once the budget is passed and then reconvene to finish the work of the session. This will probably have to be at the governor’s call, which the constitution provides for “on extraordinary occasions,” since the procedure for the Legislature to convene itself depends on support from both parties. Not gonna happen.
If there is a point where minority Republicans may rightly cry foul, this is it. The maneuver is not unconstitutional but is surely not what was intended by these provisions. What goes around comes around, and Democrats will find themselves on the other end of this stick one day. If Democrats pass a majority budget now, bipartisan cooperation for the rest of the year will be a pipe dream.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.