With her first legislative session as governor under her belt, Janet Mills has to be pretty pleased with how things went.

She was able to fulfill a number of campaign promises – most notably by finally putting Medicaid expansion into place, but also by taking action on the environment, abortion rights, gun control and assisting immigrants. It was scaled back slightly, but her budget emerged through the process relatively unscathed.

Indeed, when Republicans did manage to have an impact on legislation this session, it was often to Mills’ benefit. During the budget process, the need to get to a two-thirds majority gave Mills a handy excuse to rein in many grandiose schemes floated by Democrats in Augusta, allowing her to appear more moderate than she really was. Republicans didn’t give her just enough votes to avoid a shutdown, either: There were votes to spare on the floor, and they didn’t even make an attempt to offer a unified alternative out of committee. That made the final passage a breeze for the administration, avoiding the lengthy late-night debates that we’ve seen in the past.

It wasn’t just in the budget negotiations that Republicans ended up helping Mills, either. They had a chance to take advantage of a divide within the Democratic Party over the Central Maine Power corridor, as the Legislature passed or came close to passing various bills that might have restricted the project. The Republican Party could have taken the lead on this issue, opposing one of Mills’ key priorities, but they didn’t. Instead, they largely sided with the administration on the corridor, helping to torpedo bills targeting it. They missed the chance to contrast themselves with Janet Mills, divide the Democrats further and be on the right side of an issue with most Maine voters.

On guns, Augusta Republicans made a similar miscue. Rather than simply defeating any and all gun control proposals, leaving the liberals completely empty-handed yet again, they took a seat at the table to negotiate a compromise “red-flag bill” (LD. 1811) with the Mills administration. The new law will create a process for judges to seize firearms from people who are being evaluated for mental illness while in protective custody.

If you argue that it’s a minor piece of legislation, that’s a plausible defense, but then it raises this question: Why bother doing it at all? Was it just so that they’d be able to pat themselves on the back and pretend they accomplished something? That’s a lousy reason to pass any bill, let alone one that backtracks on the Second Amendment and gives Mills a key victory to brag about to her base.

Fortunately, even despite all of these disappointments, later this year Republicans might have another bite at the apple.

It appears increasingly likely that the Legislature will return for a special session this fall to put together a bond package. The Democrats, of course, want an enormous bond package: Mills has proposed a $239 million package that would fund programs such as environmental protection, child care and workforce development. This is known in politics as a Christmas tree bill, because it comes loaded with all sorts of goodies. They’re designed to pass by, basically, enticing legislators into supporting it because it includes one of their pet projects. In Washington, D.C., funding these projects used to be done through the earmarking process; in Augusta, they use bonds.

The problem with this approach is that it leads to the state of Maine taking on all sorts of debt for things that really shouldn’t be funded through bonds or any other sort of borrowing. As a general rule of fiscal prudence, bonds should be used to fund the construction of infrastructure that lasts well beyond the life of the bond, not ongoing spending. We see this principle at work in everyday life: It’s why mortgages are for longer periods than car loans, and why the interest on credit card debt is so high.

So, it makes sense for Republicans to insist on a transportation-only bond. Maine needs to make a serious investment in its infrastructure, and these projects are exactly the sort of thing that bonds ought to be used for. Republicans should take it a step further and demand that every individual project be voted on separately, rather than as one massive bond package. If they insist on this – separate votes for separate projects, or no bond package at all – they might be able to distinguish themselves from Democrats more clearly in the minds of the voters.

It won’t be easy, but even if they don’t succeed it would be a worthy fight.

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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