Compromise in short supply

The state budget is pooched. Urban Dictionary definition of pooched: “Used to be working and should be functioning, but is no longer running/functional.” The Appropriations Committee could do no better than a four-way split on its June 3 budget vote.

Democrats sponsored a version that retains the publicly voted on 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000, yielding $320 million in additional school funding. Senate Republicans squashed the surcharge but offered up $100 million for schools; House Republicans also rejected the surcharge but added only $19 million for schools. There was reportedly one lonely “ought not to pass” vote.

Though it is perfectly legal for a budget to pass with a simple majority, that must take place by about the third week in March, because bills must sit through a 90-day period before they may be implemented. This is per the constitutional provision that allows for a “people’s veto.”

Now, the Legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass the budget as an “emergency” so it may take effect immediately. It is an emergency of the Legislature’s own creation, but in their defense, it is extremely difficult to advance a biennial budget through the process by mid-winter, so a majority budget is rarely attempted.

Not only does the Legislature need a two-thirds vote to pass a budget in the first place, they will need that two-thirds vote to hold in the face of an expected gubernatorial veto. If history is any teacher, Republicans by the dozens have supported enactment of legislation only to reverse course and vote against overriding a veto on the same bill.

This is a catastrophic level of disagreement at this point in the process. Democrats are accusing Republicans of ignoring the will of the people as expressed through the November referendum. Republican efforts to replace the surcharge with revenue from another source have fallen far short of $320 million.

Republicans, in turn, have warned that the Democrats’ plan “will do our economy irreparable harm” (the words of Sen. Roger Katz), by moving Maine further up the ranks of high-tax states. Democrats actually offered to shrink the surcharge from 3 to 1.75 percent and raise the threshold from $200,000 to $300,000. That plan also included increases in the sales tax, the lodging tax and some taxes on tobacco products.

This earned them little more than a tongue-lashing from customary allies such as the Maine Education Association and the Maine People’s Alliance.

Republicans gave it a quick thumbs down.

There are a few possible scenarios for a solution, but only a few. Democrats do not have an outright majority in either chamber, having lost their slim House majority when two caucus members recently turned independent. Most House independents have usually voted with the Democrats, but it cannot be assumed that they will now.

In fact, House independents now have a ton of leverage. A budget bill is not going anywhere without the majority Senate Republicans, so it is within the House Republican caucus where the potential lies. If House independents could broker a deal with them, a budget could pass with a simple majority.

That would mean a 90-day state shutdown, which would be beyond unfortunate, but if they could pull it off quickly, the meter would start running right away. At the moment, we are staring down a shutdown of unknown duration and a vast amount of further wrangling to get us even that far. Just sayin’.

Though the budget is center stage, it is by no means the only disorderliness in the process. LD 1636, an act to allow municipalities to prohibit primary caregivers from growing medicinal marijuana within 500 feet of a school, blew through the process like a house afire.

The bill was printed on June 8 and referenced to the Health and Human Services Committee the same day. A committee notice was sent out at 11:35 a.m., also on June 8, announcing a public hearing to be held at 3 p.m. that afternoon.

Rep. Ben Chipman made a little squeak, emailing the committee clerk and the bill sponsor: “With all due respect, do we need to hold the hearing today? … [M]embers of the public who want to attend will not be able to because of the incredibly short notice.”

The response from the clerk was terse: “Not up to me.” She is correct. She puts out the hearing notices, but she has nothing to do with the decision about when they are held. That would be leadership choosing to run a bill through in a matter of hours. The “due respect” referenced by Chipman? This compete disregard for due process shows zero respect for the public.

The committee went ahead with the farcical “public hearing” and proceeded directly to a work session and a vote, approving the bill “as amended.” Amended how? Who knows?

LD 1636 was not alone. Three other bills printed on June 8 or 9 also were funneled into committees. Two of them were bills from the governor. Bills entering the system now should be killed or carried over to next session, when they can be duly noticed and the public can have its say. Sunshine, people, sunshine!

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

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.

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