There was no budget to debate (not even of the supplemental variety), nor threat of a shutdown, yet Democrats and Republicans still managed to find themselves in yet another end-of-session standoff last week.

Predictably, the stalemate was over the two most contentious issues of the session: funding of Medicaid expansion and conforming state tax laws to federal reforms.

Democrats didn’t have a real plan to fully fund Medicaid expansion. Instead, their preferred solution – after proposing a series of gimmicks all session that went nowhere – was to fund approximately a hundred new positions in state government. They came to agreement with Senate Republicans to pass tax conformity legislation in exchange for funding these positions, but House Republicans didn’t support that deal, as they also wanted to include a slowdown of the minimum wage increase. Their leverage this time was a vote to extend the legislative session, which needs a two-thirds majority for passage.

In response, Democrats in the House spent the day Wednesday tabling Republican bills, trying to force Republicans to support an extension of session. However, that wasn’t all they did. Rather than allowing each bill that required funding to be voted on separately, they also insisted that they be rammed through as one bill. Republicans rightly balked at this, as it was simply a tactic for Democrats to force through unpopular items alongside others that had widespread, bipartisan support. That’s political gamesmanship, not responsible governing, and it isn’t how things should be done in Augusta (or in Washington, for that matter). Unfortunately, as we’ve seen of late, secret, last-minute deals hammered out behind closed doors are becoming the norm in the State House rather than the exception.

Fortunately, House Republicans held firm against these bullying tactics, voting against extending the session late Wednesday night. That should have been the end of the session, with adjournment coming sharply at midnight, and every pending bill should have died. At about 1:30 a.m., however, Democrats passed a joint order carrying over pending legislation to any potential special session, which will most likely occur when they return to consider Gov. LePage’s vetoes.

The question for all of us to consider is whether the crisis atmosphere on hand Wednesday night was a result of legislators simply failing to get their work done in a timely manner, or if it was created intentionally by leadership in order to push certain bills through the Legislature. According to Republican members of the Appropriations Committee speaking on the House floor, there has been little sense of urgency imparted upon them in recent weeks, and so much of their work has been left undone.

They weren’t the only ones: other committees also hadn’t finished their work by Wednesday, well past the deadline for them to do so. Moreover, the House hasn’t been holding many so-called “double sessions,” where they work in both the afternoon and the morning (or what you and I might call a regular work day). Indeed, on the very day when Democrats were insisting that it was vital to extend session and finish their work, the House spent much of the day in ‘hurry up and wait’ mode, rather than actually trying to get things done.

It’s one thing if the Legislature is, time and time again, failing to complete its work in a timely manner and being forced to rely on last-minute negotiations to move forward. That indicates a lack of preparedness and management capabilities on the part of leadership that desperately needs to be corrected by voters in upcoming elections.

If, however, it’s an intentional tactic, that indicates that some in leadership may be attempting to avoid the usual transparency involved in the legislative process, and that’s harmful to Maine’s democracy. It makes it easier for special interest groups to have sway over legislation, and harder for everyday citizens to even know what’s going on in Augusta, let alone support or oppose it.

Regardless of which party is responsible, secret negotiations, a constant sense of crisis, and endless partisan brinksmanship are no way to govern in this state or this country. Many legislators have expressed concern at the proliferation of citizens initiatives of late, but if they want to avoid that, they ought to start working in a more timely, transparent and responsible way.

If everyday Mainers saw the Legislature doing their job the way it’s supposed to be done – in public before their constituents – we might not be seeing quite so many referendums.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel

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