That sound you may have heard emanating from central Maine last Thursday night was not ice breaking on the Kennebec River. The winter we’ve had, you’d be lucky to find a skim of ice on a puddle.
No, it was the groan of the Democrats in the state Legislature finally standing up to Gov. LePage, promising to make the rest of the session a little more interesting.
On Thursday night, the Senate was considering a bipartisan compromise to fix the shortfall in funding for theDepartment of Health and Human Services budget, mostly through cuts in its Medicaid program, known here asMaineCare.
The supplemental budget was hammered out by the Appropriations Committee, a group known for its ability to reach across party lines and come up with adult alternatives to the governor’s tantrums.
And the Appropriations Committee had come through again. This time, it proposed reinstituting some managed-care initiatives that the new administration had stopped when it took office last year.
It also proposed borrowing money from the 2013 budget to pay costs in the current year’s budget, filling a hole while waiting for the managed-care cost savings to kick in. Instead of booting 65,000 people off MaineCare, as the governor had hoped, they would dump only 14,000.
It had all the earmarks of a good compromise, including the hyperbolic bellowing from the governor’s office, complaining that it was full of gimmicks and wouldn’t achieve his real policy goals and wondering “Where’s the outrage?” I mean, if the governor hates it, it must be a good deal, right?
It was good enough for the House, where it passed 109-27, getting most Democrats to go along. But a further tweaking in the form of a floor amendment that made the deal a little sweeter for tea party Republicans got on the Senate Democrats’ nerves. The changes were needed, they were told, in order to keep the Republican caucus together and prevent a veto from the governor. But that was not good enough.
For one thing, you can’t make the tea party happy. It is a protest movement and if it has nothing to protest, members will invent something.
And as for the veto, who cares? The emergency portion of the budget needs two-thirds support, with or without the governor. The tea partiers should not be the only ones who have to be kept on board.
Even though a lot of the quotes in Friday’s paper after the budget deal collapsed were about floor amendments and respect for the Appropriations process, there was something deeper going on here.
The Democrats hate the budget. It takes health insurance away from 14,000 people, mostly parents of MaineCare children who earn too much to qualify for MaineCare on their own.
These are almost, by definition, people with jobs who don’t get health insurance at work and don’t make enough to buy it on their own. Providing health insurance to these people is a core Democratic value, and this time, at least some party members were not going for the compromise.
The Democrats in Augusta have given a lot of ground since they lost the Blaine House and both houses of the Legislature in 2010. They signed off on a pension reform plan that breaks promises to retired workers. They approved tax cuts on the state’s wealthiest and watched revenue tank.
This time, they decided not to go along with the plan just because it was better than what the governor proposed.
And there is the little-discussed second phase to this whole drama.
The budget that did not pass is a piece of emergency legislation that requires two-thirds support in both houses and goes into effect immediately. This is necessary because the administration says it will run out of money in the current DHHS budget in April.
Next year’s budget, which begins July 1, can be changed with a simple majority vote. So if Republicans want to follow the governor’s leadership and stop helping the elderly pay for their prescription drugs, they don’t need a single Democratic vote to help them do it.
The only leverage the Democrats are ever going to have is right now, and they are right to use it.
The Democratic leaders are not hard-core partisans. Sen. Barry Hobbins and Rep. Emily Cain are the deal-making kind of legislators who believe that they can accomplish more through compromise than they can by digging in their heels.
I tend to be pro-compromise in most things, but there are also times when a party should be willing to say “no.” The tea partiers are not afraid to do that, and as of last week, neither are the Senate Democrats.
The Republicans are going to have their way in most issues during the final weeks of this session, but as we head into an election year, it’s helpful to know who stands for what, and sometimes the best compromise deal is still not good enough.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org