During the 2018 campaign, Janet Mills repeatedly pledged that she would govern in a transparent, bipartisan way. She assured us that the days of the governor vetoing bills that had easily passed and picking fights with the Legislature would be distant memories if we sent her to the Blaine House. After all, she told us, she had been elected as attorney general overwhelmingly by her former colleagues in the Legislature, illustrating the widespread faith they had in her – even across the aisle.

In the early days of her tenure, it appeared that she was holding true to these promises. She avoided any major confrontation over her first biennial budget, which was easily passed with support from both parties. Most Republicans in Augusta didn’t even bother to put up much of a fuss over the billion dollars of additional spending in the budget. It’s not a surprise that Mills and her Democratic colleagues would be eager to increase spending, but it was surprising that Republicans didn’t put up more of a fight. Republicans and Democrats even managed to come together to pass some gun control legislation.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, it appeared that recent spate of bipartisan comity would continue in the State House. Both parties worked well together to quickly pass a spending bill and expand Mills’ powers in order to deal with the pandemic. Even though they were in the minority in both the House and Senate, Republican leaders could have used the opportunity to demand concessions by holding up adjournment, but they didn’t. Instead, they worked responsibly with their colleagues to finish the session early.

After they left town, Republican leaders continued to largely refrain from criticizing Mills’ decisions as events unfolded. Although House Republicans criticized the administration’s initial attempt to close gun shops, once Mills backed down, that fight ended. Since she took their words to heart in that instance, a casual observer would have been forgiven for thinking that, going forward, she might consult with both parties before making major decisions.

Apparently, though, that hasn’t been the case, as last week Republican leaders wrote to Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate President Troy Jackson to ask that the Legislature reconvene to end Mills’ declaration of a state of emergency. Gideon and Jackson, ever-loyal Democrats, immediately rejected that call, of course; Gideon claimed it would endanger public health, while Jackson said it would risk federal funding to Maine.

Now, House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham and Senate Republican Leader Dana Dow weren’t simply siding with the protesters who rallied at the State House recently, demanding that Mills allow the state to reopen immediately. They also didn’t just wake up the other day and decide that businesses reopening was worth any potential risk to public health. Dillingham and Dow are both cautious, reasonable leaders who understand that Maine is going through a crisis that needs to be addressed. Instead, they requested the reconvening of the Legislature because they felt that the Mills administration hadn’t been keeping them properly informed throughout the crisis.

They were also responding to reasonable concerns of members of their caucus. Back in mid-April, Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, and Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, published open letters regarding the re-opening of the state. They didn’t request that it happen immediately, and they didn’t attack Gov. Mills; indeed, both of them thanked her for her hard work. Rather, they asked that a committee be established to advise the governor on when and how the state could be reopened. That’s an entirely reasonable request, and it’s something that the Mills administration should have done.

Instead, Mills simply released her own plan to reopen the state. Given the current state of emergency, she has the authority to take that step on her own, without involving legislators from either party. While she has that power, it’s not the wisest move politically: Even though she can ignore Republican legislators for now, eventually she’s going to need their support to get a new budget passed. That won’t be easy for the Legislature next time around, but it will be a whole lot easier if the two parties can work together.

Gov. Mills has to be able to move quickly during this crisis, but she ought to keep in mind that it’s best to involve legislators from both parties whenever possible. Otherwise, she risks dividing the state even further rather than uniting it, as a leader should during a crisis.

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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