AUGUSTA — State House Democrats have a not-so-secret weapon at their disposal as budget talks intensify.
Democrats theoretically could pass a two-year state budget without Republican votes with a simple majority so long as they enacted the spending blueprint by April 1.
It would be the first time such a single-party budget was adopted in Maine, turning away from the traditional two-thirds majority budget. It also probably would be the first time such a strategy was ever tried.
Democrats would get their way on such controversial topics as school funding, taxes, and research and development spending. Republicans would be rendered irrelevant.
But the Democrats’ new weapon could backfire. Democrats would run the risk of permanently damaging interparty relations, and because they would be giving up on negotiation and compromise, the traditional core of lawmaking, Democrats could provoke a tremendous public backlash. Their majority might not last past the 1998 elections.
“We view that absolutely as a last resort, only if we were facing a shutdown,” Senate President Mark W. Lawrence, D-Kittery, said this week.
While most Democratic leaders were mum on the topic, rank-and-filers said they had discussed it in caucus.
Mere mention of the single-party strategy was enough to make Republicans nervous and angry.
“It would be unfortunate and extremely divisive,” said Senate Minority Leader Jane Amero, R-Cape Elizabeth.
Legislative give-and-take has produced budgets with two-thirds approval every other year. Agreement was even achieved after almost three weeks of state government shutdown in 1991. The two parties this year seem no more polarized than they were in years past.
While it’s unlikely the simple-majority budget would ever be used, the mere possibility it could be used gives Democrats another club to hold over Republicans’ heads. The threat of Democrats going it alone might prompt some Republicans to be more cooperative.
Current talk about the budget weapon gives Republicans something to snipe at Democrats about.
Sen. Richard Bennett, R-Norway, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said, “I’ve heard they [Democrats] may be very interested in doing it [passing a simple-majority budget]. It’s a poor strategy for them. It disenfranchises thousands and thousands of people on the most important bill that comes before the Legislature.”
Bennett said that passing a budget with two-thirds support is “entirely possible.”
This month, as budget decisions come at break-neck speed, the Legislature will try to crank out a two-year budget about three months before the new budget period begins.
Presiding officers have set the target dates of April 1 for budget approval and May 31 for adjournment of the session. The dates are well in advance of previous years, when budget talks sometimes dragged into late June or early July.
Traditionally, the state budget is approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and sent to the governor for him to sign it into law. Such a vote takes effect immediately so it is possible to wait until the last minute — the night of June 30 — to enact a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Democrats don’t have enough votes for a two-thirds majority. Such a vote requires support from both parties. And consensus budgets are the product of negotiation and agreement by the parties.
A bill passed by simple majority takes effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. Therefore, a simple-majority budget that takes effect July 1 would have to be enacted by the Legislature before April 1. And the Legislature would have to adjourn immediately after the budget was passed, only to be called back into special session later to finish up the session’s regular business.
Lawrence, the Senate president, said achieving a traditional two-thirds consensus on the budget is still the goal of Democratic leaders.
As for a Democrats-only budget, “there is that possibility as a last resort if we couldn’t get two-thirds agreement,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence said Democrats would decide if the two parties were so far apart in late March that a shutdown in June looked like a possibility. Then they might try to ram through the simple majority budget.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see government shut down again,” Lawrence said. “We’d like to pass a budget by April 1.”
Lawrence admits that interparty relations could be damaged if Democrats go it alone on the budget, but “it would not be as bad as if we went through another shutdown of state government. That truly devastated relations between the parties and state government.”
House Speaker Elizabeth H. Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, said one reason for the March push on the budget is a new law that says school funding levels should be decided by March 15.
“Decisions are being made in public and not at the end of the session when people are exhausted,” Mitchell said.
The House speaker said the Democrats-only budget is not a serious option because a majority of both parties, or a call by the governor, would be needed to call the Legislature back into session after adjournment.
“We do not have the power to call ourselves back into session,” she said. “You’d have to have the partnership of both parties or the partnership of the executive.”
“The Appropriations Committee is looking for common ground. The real story is how much common ground there is.”
Gov. Angus S. King, whose support would be needed to sign the budget and call the Legislature back into session, is keeping his powder dry on the single-party budget.
“He would prefer a consensus two-thirds budget,” said King’s press secretary, Dennis Bailey. “Passing a majority budget would create tensions. But he’s not ruling out the possibility if one side was to hold the budget hostage, refuse to negotiate and hold us here until June. Then he’s not ruling it out.”
The Appropriations Committee took a series of bipartisan votes this week to restore funding to education. The votes, which are subject to change, restored money for the magnet school in Limestone, the University of Maine System, the Maine Technical College System and General Purpose Aid to Education.
While the votes left the budget out of balance, they could signal a willingness to cooperate by the parties. That would render the Democrats’ secret weapon meaningless.
Sen. Michael Michaud, D-East Millinocket, Senate chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said a two-thirds consensus on the budget is still the first choice of Democrats.
“I’m still pushing to get a two-thirds budget,” said Michaud. “It’s still too early to tell if we’re going to get it.”
The Democratic budget scenario assumes that all Democrats will stick together and vote for the budget. Some Democrats think that’s unlikely because the process will turn off some lawmakers.
“If that vote were held today, they wouldn’t get a simple majority,” said Rep. Joseph Brooks, D-Winterport, adding that a growing number of lawmakers are concerned about school funding inequities. Those concerns could result in opposition to the budget, he said.
Brooks also said a large group of freshman legislators are stressed by the hectic pace of committee work, although most committees except for Appropriations are proceeding at their normal paces.
Sen. Philip Harriman, R-Yarmouth, said he thought Democrats might use their power to pass a single-party budget this month, knowing it would be vetoed by King. They could negotiate the real budget later.
“Then they could say, `But for the governor and the minority party, we would have had a budget that would do all these wonderful things,”‘ Harriman said.
Harriman denies, and some Democrats agree with him, that Republicans are dragging their feet, hoping to prevent Democrats from using their budget weapon by pushing budget talks past April 1.
“We like the idea of doing things in an expeditious manner,” said Harriman. “There’s a lot of time that gets wasted around here. We’re all in favor of doing the job in less time. We’re pleased with the pace.”
But Harriman says, “Up until today, there’s been no interest in engaging Republicans in real negotiation. The only person who’s extended a hand is Governor King.”
Amero, the Senate minority leader, said, “I haven’t seen any effort yet to sit down and negotiate the issues. I’m ready to begin negotiating any time and I’ve told the speaker that. But I haven’t seen any action along those lines.
“If that doesn’t happen it will be a pretty good signal that Democrats are going to go ahead with a majority vote.”