Washington is changing with almost bewildering speed. Is Augusta changing? Perhaps, but it’s a lot less obvious.

President Biden has exploded long-held assumptions about the federal government during his first few weeks in office. Not only did he hold firm in passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill over numerous objections, but he’s presented an even more audacious $2.3 trillion infrastructure bill — and it’s also gaining steam.

Biden decided that he, and the nation, should no longer be bound by the Reagan consensus — the belief that, ever since the mammoth 1981 corporate and upper-income tax cuts, government’s role should constantly shrink, and the private sector should take over many duties once performed or regulated by Washington.

The crucible was the coronavirus pandemic. The reality that all productivity gains flowed to the top, that wages were forever stagnant, that families struggled to raise children, and that public institutions of all kinds were withering, suddenly hit home.

The president is appropriately defining “infrastructure” broadly, covering not only crumbling highways, broadband expansion to rural America, and electrification of cars and trucks, but the human capital families need to thrive, whether parents work or decide to take time to raise children. What he’s really talking about is public investment.

Still, support for the infrastructure bill is quite amazing. It already garners solid polling majorities, and when people find out it’s financed through higher taxes on big corporations and the rich, support goes up.


It would be hard to imagine a more convincing repudiation of the ideology that the private sector can meet all our needs, and will always do so more efficiently than government.

Biden is reaching back further than the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson — lost amid the Vietnam fiasco — to the New Deal. And while the scale may not be as large as Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, it comes amid a society that’s far more prosperous, where burdens and rewards need to be redistributed within a federal system that’s proven quite durable.

A ruling by the Senate parliamentarian permitting one more big budget bill makes things a lot easier. If Republicans want to participate in the debate, they will have to do so through good ideas, and not by withholding their votes.

A similar recasting of political expectations took place in Augusta on March 31, as Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a biennial budget passed by majority, and the Legislature immediately called itself back into special session.

The maneuver was necessary to allow the budget to take effect on July 1, with Maine’s constitutionally lengthy 90-day requirement for “non-emergency” legislation.

Though this had been done twice before by Democratic legislatures, in 1997 and 2005, this time it may mark a decisive change, similar to what’s happening in Washington, to allow legislative majorities to govern, and not by stymied by filibusters and arcane budget rules.


And there may be a simpler and more effective way to do it — a topic I’ll cover in a future column.

That’s about all the progress one can report, however. The state will soon allocate about $1 billion through its own budget from the American Rescue Plan Act, and distribute most of the $600 million due towns and cities, since many are too small to qualify for direct grants.

Mills was widely expected to release her plan quickly — it’s been in the talking stages for awhile — but she hasn’t. Instead, she’ll wait for updated figures due from the Revenue Forecasting Committee on May 1.

The timing is highly unfortunate. The Legislature, which has been struggling to advance its business since it has only rare, distanced in-person sessions, will by that time be attempting to process hundreds of bills for floor votes.

To not have even an idea of what the governor will ultimately propose puts even more pressure on lawmakers, who will then have just six weeks to wrap everything up.

It’s not as if the new figures will be dramatically different, and whatever changes there are, especially in the first year, will be dwarfed by the scale of the discretionary federal spending Maine can focus on new programs, as well as those damaged by the pandemic shutdown and previous administrations.


Having helped keep lawmakers out of session for the better part of 2020, Mills has a heightened responsibility to seek ideas and advice from her fellow Democrats — as well as any Republicans who want to join in.

This should be a creative time for new experiments in governing. It is happening in D.C., but if it’s going to happen at the State House, the tide will have to turn soon.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit the website, douglasrooks.weebly.com, or email: [email protected]


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