Dems push budget through; GOP leaders charge constitutional breach

This story was published on Jan. 31, 2004 on Page A1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

AUGUSTA – Majority Democrats in the House and Senate rammed a partisan $109 million supplemental budget bill through the Legislature on Friday evening, but not before outflanking and enraging minority Republicans with an unexpected interpretation of legislative rules.

Relations between Republicans and Democrats had been growing increasingly icy since the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee turned out competing budget plans crafted along partisan lines last week. Republicans claimed the Democrats and Gov. John E. Baldacci refused to negotiate the budget in good faith. Democrats countered Republicans simply assumed intractable positions from the beginning of negotiations by insisting on unrealistic compromises.

The major differences between both proposals pivoted on funding. The House voted 72-57 Friday evening to endorse the Democratic majority budget and then the Senate followed with an 18-17 vote. Both of the final votes on LD 1828 divided along party lines.

The Democratic majority plan allows the state to temporarily borrow $10 million from a health insurance fund for state retirees for the purpose of investing in the Medicaid program that would return $1 million in federal funds. The debt would be paid back after July 1, 2005. The majority budget will also generate $16.6 million through a new hospital tax on gross receipts, the majority of which would be returned to the hospitals after the state uses the revenue to gain more than a 2-for-1 in federal matching funds. Known as a “tax-and-match” policy, the proposal has been roundly criticized as another “gimmick” by Republicans who predicted the tax would result in increased hospital charges to patients.

Republicans preferred to balance the budget by taking $18 million from the Dirigo health program, a withdrawal that Dirigo proponents claim would “cripple” the program. Another cost-saving GOP plan would delay implementation of the expansion of Medicaid eligibility slated for July 1 until February 2006.

Baldacci had initially hoped to pass a budget that would be embraced by two-thirds of the House and Senate and could become law immediately with his signature. Partisan differences over the package, however, meant the governor and majority Democrats would have to resort to protocols dismissed by Republicans as “political gimmickry.”

To ensure the budget would become law within 90 days, Baldacci signed the bill Friday night after the Legislature voted to adjourn and end its second regular session. Lawmakers still had stacks of unresolved bills that were supposed to keep them busy through their previously scheduled adjournment date of April 21.

Since the Legislature adjourned simply to enact the budget after 90 days, Baldacci was forced to issue a proclamation ordering the lawmakers to return to the State House on Tuesday in a “special” or “emergency” session to finish their outstanding work. Special sessions are intended to be used infrequently and generally take place after lawmakers adjourn for the year. To provide extra compensation for extraordinary service and discourage unnecessary special sessions, the Legislature’s joint rules require lawmakers to receive $100 a day when called in for a special session. The extra pay is in addition to the lawmakers’ expenses and their regular $8,131.42 salary for the year.

Democrats wanted Republicans to join them in forfeiting the additional pay but that decision requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate. Still angry over the majority budget, most Republicans brushed aside any suggestion that they refuse the additional money. During a House GOP meeting, the lawmakers said they would donate the extra pay to their school systems, hospitals, town governments and charity funds for laid-off workers in their districts. Others argued that if they ever wanted to discourage the practice of majority budgets, a message had to be sent that there was a penalty to be paid.

Reasoning that since the money came from the Legislature’s budget, the Republicans said majority Democrats would spend it the way they wanted anyway and that it made more sense for them to stand on principle and help out some worthy causes in the process.

Two-thirds votes to defer the extra pay failed in the House and Senate. Just as GOP lawmakers believed they were on the verge of making Democrats pay for dominating the budget process, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Treat, D-Farmingdale, dropped the political equivalent of the mother of all bombs on the minority.

Treat introduced a joint order in the Senate maintaining that in addition to joint rules, the Maine Constitution also provides the authority to set lawmakers’ salaries by joint order.

“We interpret the Constitution’s provision in this instance as well as the provision that says we can’t increase our salaries while we’re in session and we’re clearly in the 121st legislative session – no matter how many special sessions we go in and out of,” she said. “That means that while we’re still receiving our regular legislative salary, we can’t pay ourselves $100 a day. That’s certainly the intent of the Constitution.”

The Senate endorsed Treat’s interpretation of the order limiting legislators’ salaries during the special session to regular pay in a partisan 17-15 vote. The House followed shortly after 8:30 p.m., voting 70-52.

Republican lawmakers were furious.

“So the two-party system doesn’t mean anything in this state,” said House GOP leader Joe Bruno of Raymond. “What it means is that if you’re in the minority and you have a different opinion than I do, we are just going to cram it down your throat and adjourn because we have the power to do it. Isn’t that nice?”

House Speaker Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, asserted that case law supported the use of joint orders to restrict salary increases. House Republicans charged Colwell’s interpretation was unconstitutional and broke with Maine’s two-party tradition.

“The only way to challenge this now is to go to court and have the courts decide the constitutionality of this order,” Bruno said. “Maybe we’ll do that, maybe we won’t.”

Even more troubling to Bruno was the fact that as he was meeting with Baldacci after the majority budget passed to try and agree to work together for the balance of the session, the governor’s party was working to undermine the anticipated salary increase.

“He said we needed to get beyond this and work together, and then I came [back to my office] and saw this joint order,” Bruno said. “The governor needs to understand that the abuse of his party is causing a fractured relationship with the administration and in this body.”

Lee Umphrey, the governor’s spokesman, said Bruno needed to understand Baldacci was only interested in what was “best for the people of Maine.”

“The governor asked him to come down to restart the relationship,” Umphrey said. “Using words like ‘fractured’ is less than helpful. Mr. Bruno should just take a deep breath and continue to work with everybody and not politicize the debate.”

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