AUGUSTA – Democratic leaders threw bipartisanship and compromise by the wayside Monday night as they deceived their GOP colleagues into leaving the State House and subsequently voted on a $40 million budget bill without a single Republican lawmaker present.
Republican lawmakers reacted to the maneuver, which involved Democratic members of the powerful Appropriations Committee, with disgust and astonishment.
“Democrats had met with their Republican colleagues on the budget committee earlier in the evening, agreeing to take the matter up during Tuesday afternoon’s work session. All Republican appropriators left the State House with that agreement. Democrats then assembled in the committee room and voted out the budget bill in a one-party vote,” House Republicans stated in a press release.
It was not immediately clear why Democrats on the Appropriations Committee maneuvered to vote without the presence of their Republican colleagues.
“I am absolutely stunned by this brazen move by the Democrats,” said Rep. Kathy Chase (R-Wells), top Republican on the committee. “I left the State House with the understanding that we would not vote on the measure until tomorrow afternoon.”
Republican leaders were perplexed by the move and cast aspersions Democrats’ motives.
“This is the kind of thing you see in Chicago, not Maine,” said Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau (R-Winterport). “I have never seen anything like this in my years in the Maine Legislature.”
Director of Communications for the House Republicans David Sorensen noted, ironically, that the Democrats’ late-night surprise came “just days after former Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell urged lawmakers to take a more collaborative approach to governance.”
It would appear that Democratic lawmakers ignored Mitchell’s call for bipartisanship and compromise, preferring instead to cast multimillion-dollar votes in dark of night, without the scrutiny of Republican elected officials or the voting public.
“This is a slap in the face to the people of Maine,” said House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport). “They sent us here to do the people’s business in a transparent and grown-up manner, not pull surprise votes and misrepresent the facts to the media.”
According to Sorensen, the Democrats’ proposal entails closing a $40 million budget gap by raiding the state’s rainy day fund, as well as the income tax relief fund, and using revenue surpluses.
Fredette and Thibodeau responded to the Democrats’ overtly partisan maneuver in following video:
On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) responded to Republican accusations with a prepared statement defending the decision to appropriate the $40 million for revenue sharing.
“On Monday afternoon, we told Republican leaders in no uncertain terms that we would vote on a bill to keep that promise,” said Eves. “Towns across our state are financially stretched.”
“This measure to restore $40 million in revenue sharing was wholeheartedly supported by towns across our state, regardless of political affiliation,” said Senate President Justin Alfond (D-Portland). “Democratic committee members proudly took their vote yesterday; a vote that keeps the state’s 40 year promise and will help prevent massive property tax spikes and cuts to essential services.
Sen. Dawn Hill (D-York) and Rep. Margaret Rotundo (D-Lewiston), co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, did not return calls seeking comment.
House Republicans held a press conference later in the day to voice their concerns about the way the vote was handled.
Rep. Chase flatly rejected the Democrats’ narrative. “Any statement that says Republicans chose not to be there is more than absolutely wrong, it is a lie,” she said. “[Sen. Patrick Flood (R-Kennebec)] and I, as the Republican Leads on the budget committee, had met with our Democratic counterparts last evening and expressed our concerns with too quickly addressing a proposal to fund the 2015, 40 million dollar shortfall that that the Tax expenditure task force failed to address and would result in a $40 million dollar cut to towns revenue sharing if not corrected.”
“Our belief was that we should be focused first on the 2014, $57 million shortfall that must be fixed by the end of this year. The chairs disagreed and stated we would be holding a committee work session at 1 pm on Tuesday on the budget proposal. We came to an understanding that we would be meeting at 1 pm the next day, Tuesday, February 4th,” she said.
Republicans then left for the evening believing the appropriations was done for the day, according to Chase. But the Appropriations Committee wasn’t quite done: “On my way home I was called by a member of our staff and told that Senator Hill and Representative Rotundo had — without any notice to any of our caucus — re-convened the committee with only Democrats in attendance.They then proceeded to pass the budget proposal that was still being negotiated.”
“Again, any statements made that Republican members of appropriations chose not to be present is a lie,” said Chase. “The Republicans on Appropriations were treated inappropriately and with disrespect by our democratic colleagues and the chairs of appropriations. We are dismayed and disappointed by the bad choice made to deliberately meet without us and to blatantly lie by stating that our absence was our decision.”
House Minority Leader Fredette also delivered remarks at the press conference. His remarks, as provided by the House GOP office, appear here in full:
“We have called you here today to bring attention to a turning point in Maine politics.
“In an unprecedented breach of trust that must exist between members of a legislative committee and between members of each party, Democrats held a surprise vote last night after Republicans had gone home. Let me be absolutely clear. Republican members of the budget committee left the State House last night with the promise from their Democratic colleagues that this important vote would not take place until today.
“After they left, Democrats held their vote anyway. If Democratic leadership wanted a legitimate, bipartisan vote, they would have and could have waited until the agreed upon time. Republican and Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee have been in the process of crafting a solution to ensure funding of aid to our towns.
“Unfortunately, that process was cut short by this deliberate and heavy-handed political move by Democratic leadership.
“Last week, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell—a Maine Democrat—came to the State House and urged us, Republicans and Democrats alike, to work together and avoid the dysfunction of Washington.
“Senator Mitchell said of his time leading the U.S. Senate, “We often disagreed, but through it all, we respected each other.”
“Last night, Democrats acted disrespectfully, in a manner completely unbecoming of Maine’s political tradition.
“Maine people expect better. Maine people deserve better. And they deserve to know how their leaders behaved when it counted the most.
“We must move forward—Democrats and Republicans—to address the most pressing issues facing our state, including the municipal revenue sharing that we have promised our cities and towns.
“I call on the entire legislature to condemn these actions and vow that a committee of the Maine Legislature will never hold a partisan, surprise vote again.
“As Republicans, we will not allow Washington’s disease to spread to Maine.
“I look forward to continuing the work of balancing our budget and growing Maine’s economy with jobs and opportunity for all.”
This story will be updated
Editor, Maine Wire