Taxation without representation!
This was the most often remembered outcry in the years leading up to the outbreak of war between subjects living in the American colonies and the motherland across the Atlantic. Colonists were required to pay taxes to The Crown but were not allowed to send representatives to parliament to speak and vote on their behalf. It caused our disillusioned forefathers to famously throw tea into Boston Harbor in protest and helped lead to a revolution and independence.
For the second time in two years, Democratic leaders in Augusta have reignited this concept by refusing to allow duly elected Republican state senators and representatives to have any say in the creation and passage of the state budget. In doing so, they have told those that live in districts represented by GOP lawmakers that they have no right to weigh in on how a record amount of state funds are spent in the 2023-24 state budget.
Tyranny much? Democrats are doing their best King George III impression by saying, send us your tax money—in record amounts by the way—but don’t even think of telling us how to spend it.
When Gov. Janet Mills and her Democratic colleagues took control of state government in 2019, the biennial budget then about to expire totaled $7.3 billion. The most recent two-year budget that expires next month, spent $10 billion, a jump of more than one-third.
Two years ago, Democrats used their majority status in both legislative chambers and their hold on the governorship to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Maine citizens by carrying out an unethical and dishonest scheme to pass a two-year state budget without any Republican votes. This year, Democrats did it again, going to these lengths simply to avoid agreeing to the single Republican ask—a meager $200 million in tax cuts for low- and middle-income Mainers. That amounts to less than 2% of the total spending.
It worked like this. The state constitution requires that all bills passed during a legislative session do not take effect until 90 days after the last day of that session. This includes the bill that becomes the state budget. Bills and budgets may take effect immediately only if they are passed as emergencies, requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses. Any budget that is not passed 90 days before July 1, the first day of the state’s fiscal year, requires a two-thirds vote, something Democrats do not now control.
To pass a new budget by a simple majority, Democrats had to take several steps, none of which involved honestly describing their actions. First, they needed a motive. So, they publicly claimed that Republicans were threatening to use their constitutionally provided power to prevent a two-thirds passage of the budget and thus shut down state government on July 1 in order to get their way. This was a patently false statement, repeated by many Democratic leaders at the time. I know this first-hand because I was present for every minute of every single Senate Republican caucus that spring and never once heard the word “state shutdown” escape anyone’s lips. Not once.
Nevertheless, Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford), among others, justified the exclusion of Republicans by saying it would “ensure our tourist season isn’t threatened by a government shutdown.” Fecteau, it should be noted, raised no objection a year before when Gov. Mills shut down the state’s tourism season by executive fiat, closing businesses and literally banning tourists from many other states from entering Maine. A year later, he had no qualms about using an imaginary bogeyman to hijack the state budget. But I digress.
The second major step Democrats needed to take was to pass the budget with a simple majority of votes, pretend that their work on the 2021 legislative session was complete, and adjourn, triggering the 90-day countdown in time. They did so, even though a small fraction of their bills had yet been heard and voted on.
Immediately after adjourning for the year, Democrats sought to reconvene the legislature and continue the work they had just pretended was completed. The Constitution allows the legislature to call itself back into session when a majority of both parties in each house vote to do so. Republicans said no, the legislature has just declared that it is finished.
At this point, legislative Democrats turned to their anticipated Plan B, asking Mills to exert her powers to recall the legislature back into special session to actually complete its work for the year based on a clause in the state constitution that allows such an action. “The Governor may,” it reads “on extraordinary occasions, convene the Legislature.” With lawmakers meeting under extraordinary circumstances at the Augusta Civic Center in an effort to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, it would have been hard to challenge the constitutionality of the governor’s actions in 2021.
Many at the time predicted that this was the new normal. That Democrats would never again allow Republicans to take part in the budget process now that they had a newfound gimmick that made it possible. Those predictions were correct.
Two years later, when the 90-day deadline for budgets again approached, Democrats pulled the stunt again, only this time did not even bother to hide behind the bogeyman of a made-up government shutdown. They simply exercised raw political force and cut nearly half of all Mainer’s out of decisions on the budget which is to be paid for by their taxes.
With billions in federal aid rolling in and budget surpluses piling up, there has never been a better time to allow the minority party to spend some state funds on their own priorities. But not for Democrats. They demanded it all. Their lust for spending so far exceeded their respect for all Mainers and the electoral process that they used a dishonest and likely unconstitutional maneuver to cut the constituents of duly elected representatives and senators out of the decision-making process.
The problem with 2023 is, there is nothing even close to an “extraordinary occasion” occurring that justifies the governor’s action in calling the legislature back into session after its imaginary, “we’re done now” declaration and adjournment. What’s more, by colluding with Democrats in the Legislature, Mills, as leader of the executive branch, interfered with the operation of the constitutionally separate legislative branch by working out a strategy to pull off the budget stunt yet again.
Recently, however, a handful of state representatives and a non-profit group called “Respect Maine” filed suit against Mills and Democratic leaders in the Legislature claiming they conspired to violate the constitution by ignoring the “extraordinary occasion” clause. Remarkably, in 2015, Attorney General Mills issued a legal opinion claiming that, “It was solely up to the Legislature to determine when its own legislative session is over” and that meddling in these decisions by another branch of government “might well violate” the state constitution.
If the suit is successful, and the courts reverse the scheme, resetting the calendar back to the day after the Legislature adjourned sine die, the decision could nullify every law passed in the current emergency session. If the ruling argues that the special session itself was illegal, anything that occurred during that special session could be nullified. Similarly, the courts could rule that the Legislature cannot reconvene unless extraordinary circumstances occur. In short, the session ended when they adjourned, and that is that for 2023.
This would completely derail the Democrats’ agenda for this session, forcing every bill they have passed or plan to, including late-term abortion legalization, for example, to be nullified and/or die because these actions did not occur during a proper constitutional session.
The courts might also rule that, in whatever time is left to it, the Legislature would have to restart the session with a clean slate and re-hear, re-argue, and re-vote on every measure that came before it in the improperly called special session. But that would require some Republicans to join Democrats on a vote to reconvene — something they would be reluctant to do after the way they were cast aside and disrespected during the original partisan budget process.
In either outcome, the case will serve as a test for whether Maine’s Judicial Branch is truly independent. Respect Maine’s arguments appear persuasive, as is evidenced by the fact that neither the Governor nor Democratic leaders have offered any explanation as to what they considered the extraordinary occasion in 2023. If the case is simply waived off by the judiciary, then Mainers will have cause to wonder what other parts of the State Constitution don’t really mean what they obviously should mean.
The consequences of a court decision in Respect Maine’s favor, one the nullifies a significant amount of legislative work, would be monumental. For starters, politicians would never again be able to use the parliamentary trick that was invoked to pass the partisan budget. Then, all of the work done since that trick would have been in vain, an enormous cost to taxpayers for nothing. Perhaps the best thing to come from such a decision, other than the abrogation of so many harebrained left-wing schemes, would be Democrats getting taught a lesson about the consequences of abusing power, lying to the people, and choosing out of control hyper-partisanship over civil negotiations.
No doubt the Founding Fathers, wherever they may be, are watching intently and wondering how the leaders of the present find it so hard to heed the lessons of the past. Tyranny was then, and remains today, no way to run a government or treat the people.