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Political Brew: Budget compromise, a special election, fillibusters and grading the governor

An attorney and radio talk host, Democrat Ken Altshuler, and former Republican state Senator Phil Harriman talk Maine politics in this week's Political Brew segment.

MAINE, USA — As the Maine Legislature convened for the first time this year, they faced an urgent matter – passing a supplemental budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. Because it required a two-thirds majority for enactment, minority Republicans were able to exercise some influence, and the compromise wasn't finalized until the wee hours of Friday morning, right before they had to vacate the Augusta Civic Center to make way for a vaccination clinic.

RELATED: Maine Legislature finds compromise, approves state budget

The deal includes tax relief for businesses that got Paycheck Protection Program funds from the federal government, and tax breaks for people who received unemployment benefits because of the pandemic.

Governor Janet Mills applauded the results in an official statement, but it is also clear that the GOP will push for more tax relief in the coming months as they work on the budget for the next two years.

"It's gonna be interesting to see how the new two-year budget unfolds with Republicans presumably going to use their influence on the budget," says Republican analyst Phil Harriman.

Democrat Ken Altshuler says, "the Republicans targeting tax relief is smart. I think that's an issue that sells well and plays well with the public. I think it's more effective than saying we don't want to spend the money on infrastructure or Internet connections. So I think it's a smart strategy."

One of the senators taking part in the session was Craig Hickman, the Democrat who won a special election last Tuesday to fill the seat vacated by Shenna Bellows when she became Secretary of State.

Altshuler says Hickman's easy victory "shows that the Democrats are still pretty popular. That is a swing district. I think it shows the Democrats are well entrenched."

Harriman says the Democrats not only spent more money than the Republicans, but they "were able to mobilize people to go and vote. I would guess about 25% of eligible voters actually showed up and voted."

This week, both of Maine's U.S. Senators talked with NEWS CENTER Maine about the possibility that Democrats, with their razor-thin majority, might eliminate the filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Senator Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told NEWS CENTER Maine he is reluctant to change the rule, but "If Mitch McConnell and his caucus are going to be no, no, no, to everything, and everybody's going to be on board, then we've got to get things done for the country."

Republican Senator Susan Collins responded, "I would remind my dear friend Angus that the Democrats could be in the minority two years from now. And they will wish that they had not done away with the filibuster if that happens, that I can assure you."

RELATED: With virus aid in sight, Democrats debate filibuster chang

Phil Harriman agrees with Collins and says, "Getting rid of the filibuster is going to enable the majority to terrorize the minority, and they're going to rue the day when the Republicans are back in power and don't have that filibuster opportunity."

Altshuler points out that the filibuster is no longer like what we see in the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which he says shows "somebody stands up and dominates the Senate floor until everybody gets so bored they finally dropped the legislation... Either get rid of it or make it the way it was intended to be, dominate the floor if you can and you can stall legislation."

It has been a year since the Coronavirus pandemic hit Maine, and Governor Mills declared a civil state of emergency.

Over the last twelve months, Mills has heard praise and criticism for her handling of the crisis.

Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine

Ken Altshuler thinks she has earned top marks.

"I give her an A. I think she's done an exemplary job," Altshuler says. "She was overly cautious, but I think you err on the side of caution. Because of that, we were one of the safest states in the country."

And Phil Harriman offers some praise as well, saying, "I have to acknowledge that the governor has done the best that she can do with the facts that she had at the time. Early on we were scared into our homes and were not sure it was even safe to go outside. Today, we have a lot of statistical information to guide us. I think she's using that information to serve us in a way that we can have reasonable expectations that we're not going to have a resurgence of the infection rate."

Our analysts also discuss new measures in Washington to strengthen background checks for firearms sales, the failed effort by Republicans in the legislature to strip Gov. Mills of her emergency powers, and efforts in Augusta and Washington to ban transgender athletes from participating in girls' and women's sports.

Political Brew airs Sundays on NEWS CENTER Maine's The Weekend Morning Report.