During the waning days of the Baldacci administration, House Republicans decided to take a stand against bonds. As is typical with bond proposals, the Baldacci administration had combined all of the borrowing ideas they supported into one bill. This is known as a “Christmas-tree bill,” because it has a little something for everyone, making it that much easier to pass. Republicans didn’t have great numbers – they had barely more than a third of the seats in the House – but since bonds require two-thirds for final passage, they had a chance to exert influence on this. On a Friday night toward the end of session, they actually managed to hold up the bond package, making sure it didn’t have a two-thirds majority. Majority Democrats tabled the bond bill, made some calls and twisted some arms over the weekend, and came back with enough votes to pass it.

This year, Democrats weren’t even able to rush through a bond package at the end of the regular session, so they had to put it off until a one-day special session last week. Republicans – just as they did when John Baldacci was governor – insisted that the bond package was too large, and that we ought to focus on transportation spending. Copying playbooks from earlier bond fights wasn’t a surprise – the surprise was that this time, it actually worked for the Republican Party.

Thanks to their inability to get their work done on time, Democrats were running up a tight deadline for the transportation bond. There was concern that if the bond wasn’t passed by the end of August, they wouldn’t be able to get it on the November ballot, and that would hold up quite a few road projects in the queue for next year.  That gave Republicans even more leverage than the minority party typically has over bonds, leading Janet Mills to cave to their demands to separate out the transportation bond as its own bill.

Separating out the bonds by different topics made things far easier for Republicans, but by no means guaranteed their success. They still had to contend with a very slim margin of error, and the spending items in the other bonds did have some support among Republicans. There was every reason to expect that Democrats would pick off just enough Republicans to slip every bond through, or that Mills and Republican leadership might agree to a last-minute compromise.

None of that happened – instead, Republicans remained unified and managed to sink everything except the transportation bond. This was the first real legislative defeat for Janet Mills, who trotted out the old trope labeling Republicans the “party of no” and blaming them for the failure of her spending package. While Republican legislators are to be commended for standing tall against Mills’ ongoing spending spree, they weren’t able to score this win alone. It was also a failure of the Mills administration and legislative Democrats, including Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson, who didn’t show much ability to sway the other side or count votes.

The expense of the entire special session, along with the political fiasco of handing the minority party a win over the Blaine House, could have been avoided if Mills, Jackson and Gideon had agreed to separate out the transportation bond back in June. Then they could have gotten that road funding passed and avoided an embarrassing loss to Republicans, returning to reconsider the other bonds in the second regular session next year. Instead, they dithered all summer, and when they eventually decided to call the Legislature back into session, they apparently did so on a hope and a prayer rather than any coherent strategy. That gave Republican leaders Kathleen Dillingham and Dana Dow the opening to get exactly what they had been hoping for: The relatively uncontroversial transportation bond passed by itself.

Though a victory for Republicans, this may be a temporary one: The Legislature is coming back in January, and there will no doubt be a renewed discussion over borrowing. Even if more borrowing was only delayed rather than stopped, the special session proved that Republicans can’t be just totally ignored in Augusta. When they decide to take a stand and stick together, they have the chance to actually get things done. Hopefully, this victory will show Janet Mills that she needs to not only work with the Republican Party but also convince Republican legislators to use what influence they have, rather than resigning themselves to being mere bystanders.

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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