You might have missed it, but the Legislature is returning to the State House to wrap up its business and adjourn for the year – for real this time.

It’s rather easy to miss that the Legislature is finishing its work because, for the most part, it’s been a relatively quiet session. After the Democrats decided to go ahead and pass their majority budget, things pretty much returned to normal in Augusta.

They weren’t particularly held responsible for their complete abandonment of the regular budgetary process, or for tossing bipartisanship off the State House balcony. It remains to be seen whether voters will remember or care about that next year, but contrary to the grand declarations of some, it didn’t completely poison the well for legislative work the rest of the year.

That’s not to say there’s a chance for further fireworks this session now that action is returning to the dome: There surely is.

Many of these battles, at least the most interesting ones, will likely be intraparty conflicts solely among Democrats. Part of the reason for that is simple numbers: Democrats enjoy fairly substantial majorities in both chambers, so if they simply stick together they can pass nearly any legislation they want.

In the past, that hasn’t been hard for Democrats in Augusta: They’re typically fairly united when it comes to the big issues. We saw that most recently, of course, with the budget, when nearly all of them marched in lockstep in order to get their way. No Democratic legislators made any serious attempts to completely rewrite the budget with amendments. Nor were there many defections on the final vote.

Now, though, there’s a whole slew of regular legislation coming up for votes that may well divide the party more than we’re used to seeing. Liberal Democrats have been quietly pursuing their own agenda on a host of issues, from police reform to taxes to energy policy, that likely goes far to the left of where Janet Mills sits.

She first ran as a centrist, and even though she’s abandoned the pretense of her commitment to bipartisanship, she hasn’t much strayed from being right in the middle – at least, of her own party. That served her well in her first race, and is likely to continue to do so in her re-election bid.

Sara Gideon’s disastrous performance in the U.S. Senate race proves that the old adage that liberals from southern Maine don’t fare well statewide still applies, and Mills knows that. There’s a whole new activist wing of the Maine Democratic Party that seems unwilling to accept it, though, and they may end up pushing her further to the left than she’d like.

On taxes, for instance, Mills has repeatedly insisted that she has no interest in raising them. While it’s clearly mainly a political maneuver for her designed to win votes rather than being a deeply held principle, that’s actually the case for quite a few Republicans as well. For decades, promising not to raise taxes has been a staple for politicians in both parties who want to seem reasonable to most voters, and Mills has closely followed that playbook. It’s an especially easy promise to keep when the state has a budget surplus and a debate over taxes is completely unnecessary.

Liberal Democrats, though, are beginning to take a different approach on taxes: arguing to just raise them. In Washington, Joe Biden has proposed tax increases to pay for his infrastructure plan; in Augusta, left-wing Democrats are trying to raise taxes just because they can.

They’re doing it not only because they always want to expand state government, but also because they want to penalize the most successful Mainers and redistribute their wealth. While these bills probably won’t get enough votes to pass, nor would Mills probably sign them if they did, they’re indicative of a widening schism among Maine Democrats along the lines of the tea party insurgency that tore apart the Republican Party in 2010.

For now, Democrats have a reason to mute these disagreements as Mills prepares to run for re-election. If she’s victorious in that effort, Mills might be more willing to consider the progressive wing’s policies, or they might be more willing to defy her; if she loses, they could end up taking over the party. Either way, these liberal proposals that seem like non-starters today could end up as laws on the books in the years to come if Democrats retain sole control in Augusta.

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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