Republicans forcing Democrats to set priorities. Maybe this will get results

Republican leaders in Augusta have reacted to Democrats’ spending wish list for the legislative session with a surprise strategy. They’re not negotiating on individual items, and they’re not simply opposing any new spending. Instead, they’re attempting to use it as leverage to revive a competing measure to the minimum wage increase measure headed for the ballot.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Assuming Republicans stick together, this is a smart strategy. It forces Democrats to show some willingness to compromise on the minimum wage if they want any new spending from the state surplus.

Democrats were furious, of course. Their allies at the Maine People’s Alliance have consistently opposed any attempt to negotiate on the minimum wage issue, and they’ll need the MPA’s help if they wish to retake full control of the Legislature this fall.

But politically, the Democrats are in a precarious position here. It’s hard for them to criticize Republicans for linking the two issues when they used the exact same strategy earlier this year by holding tax conformity hostage to increased education spending. At the time, Democrats held the upper hand, because the tax conformity legislation was extremely time sensitive and there was money available for their spending priorities. This time, though, the tables are turned: Democrats want two different items — a single minimum wage hike to $12 per hour on the ballot and additional spending. Republicans, meanwhile, would rather not have any new spending (or very little) and simply transfer the surplus to the rainy day fund.

Republican leadership is being responsible by offering the possibility of compromise on both of these issues. The question here as negotiations move forward is just how much Democrats really want this additional spending. Unfunded legislation is in a state of limbo: if the Appropriations committee doesn’t finance those bills, they don’t really go into effect. It’s important to recognize that this debate isn’t like when Congress debates whether to raise the debt ceiling, which only allows the federal government to pay bills it has already incurred. This is a debate over whether to spend the money at all in the first place, or to save it and improve the state’s fiscal health.

Of course, new spending has already passed this session. Democrats got their wish for some increased education spending and Gov. Paul LePage got increased funding for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. Indeed, compared with recent years, the Legislature has been on a relative spending spree this session. So, stopping the spending now (or seriously limiting it) is hardly unreasonable.

If the Democrats truly want to fully fund their wish list, however, allowing the competing measure to head to the ballot would hardly be the end of the world. After all, the citizens initiative could still pass in its original form, or it might head to a run-off and be delayed slightly. It’s not as if Republicans are able to completely nix the minimum wage hike. Their competing measure for a $10 minimum wage, after all, doesn’t go in the opposite direction of the original proposal. Instead, it simply doesn’t go far enough in the eyes of proponents, who see any competition as a threat.

It will certainly be interesting to see this debate play out over the next several weeks as the legislative session winds down. Ideally, just as compromise managed to prevail during the debate over tax conformity, the same spirit will eventually emerge here. Just as Democrats didn’t get exactly what they wanted there, Republicans are unlikely to be completely victorious here. However, it’s good to see legislative Republicans stand together in both chambers on an issue. Hopefully, it gets some results.

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.