Beware the perils of fake bipartisanship

Not all bipartisanship is created equal: There’s real bipartisanship and fake bipartisanship. There was plenty of both on full display in the Legislature this week.

In real bipartisanship, both sides actually come together to solve a problem. They negotiate to find a solution that both of them can support. They make sacrifices, and nobody gets exactly what they want. These types of solutions won’t be passed unanimously, but they usually are approved overwhelmingly, with only the extremely liberal and conservative in both parties opposing.

This happened with the budget this week, as legislators on the Appropriations Committee came together for another compromise. They not only closed the $30 million deficit for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, they also came to agreement on a plan to end (or at least reduce) the wait lists for developmentally disabled Mainers to receive the services they so desperately need. Their solution for fiscal year 2015 wasn’t perfect, but that’s the nature of compromise. Sen. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, who unfortunately is retiring after this session, was apparently the architect of this deal, as he has been of so many others throughout his decade in the Legislature that have met with bipartisan approval.

Another bipartisan deal may be near to expand access to the life-saving drug Naloxone, which stops drug overdoses. Gov. Paul LePage had expressed opposition to a bill that was passed earlier this session that would have allowed greater access to the drug. Fortunately, Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco,  seems to be close to convincing the governor to support an amended version of the bill. This is at least a step in the right direction, and Hobbins deserves kudos for it.

In other areas bipartisanship has been more imagined than real. The current version of Medicaid expansion was vetoed by the governor, as it should have been. Rather than being a true bipartisan deal, which earned the support of many Republicans, this was a plan with just a few Republican supporters. Majority Democrats knew that and went ahead with it anyway, hoping to peel off just enough Republican votes to override a veto.

We’ve seen this tactic before. Most recently in Maine, it happened with the last state budget, when just enough Republicans voted to override the governor’s veto of ill-advised tax hikes. Instead of coming to a true consensus and finding a budget deal that their colleagues across the aisle could support, Democrats insisted on tax increases in a state that is already over-taxed.

They’ve taken a different approach on welfare reform. Recognizing that they were losing the battle over the issue in the eyes of the public — and that it was set to become a major campaign point for Republicans in the fall — Democrats attempted to settle the issue. They passed one watered-down version in the Senate that greatly reduced the penalties for fraud — but it lost all Republican support. In the House they took a similar tack, but passed an even weaker bill. This left two irreconcilable versions, so instead of being able to take fake credit for passing a weaker version, Democrats have essentially killed the bill.

Real bipartisanship is both sides coming together on an issue and finding a solution that disappoints them both, but which nonetheless has overwhelming support. It means tough negotiations, with sacrifices made by both parties. Although the public and members of the media all too often fall for it, tweaking a proposal just enough to get a few votes from the other party, or watering down the other party’s ideas so you can take credit for them, is not really bipartisanship. If real negotiations between the two parties never occur, it’s just smoke and mirrors, not bipartisanship — and the people of this state deserve better from their Legislature.

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Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.