AUGUSTA, Maine — Even after recent outbursts and insults from Gov. Paul LePage, legislative leaders said Tuesday they remain hopeful they can find common ground with the governor as they work to pass a budget for the next two years.
“I think this is the beginning of what is going to be a long and winding road to ultimately passing a budget together,” said Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. “The reality is that, while politics swirl all around us, we have no choice but to, at some point, come together and pass a budget.”
The lawmakers’ comments came amid reports that LePage last week pounded his fists on a table, swore and stormed out of a meeting with three independent lawmakers who met with the governor to discuss alternate approaches to balancing the budget other than eliminating revenue sharing for municipalities.
Rep. Joe Brooks of Winterport, one of the independent legislators who met with LePage, said Monday the meeting left him without much hope that majority Democrats and the Republican governor will be able to work together in the coming months.
“It bewilders me to see the complexity of the budget, but it’s even more disturbing when you find out people aren’t talking to each other who are responsible for this huge document,” he said. “We are not doing the service that the voters sent us down here to do.”
LePage so far hasn’t met with Democratic legislative leaders since their party recaptured control of the Legislature from Republicans in November’s elections. And according to the independent lawmakers who met with him last Tuesday, LePage pledged during the meeting to veto any budget-balancing approach that results in a state tax increase.
A spokeswoman for LePage declined comment on the meeting Tuesday.
“There’s certainly been, seemingly, a pretty intense start to this budget deliberation,” said Cain, a former Democratic House leader who sits on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and has served as chairman of the committee in the past.
But it’s early in the budget process, she said, and much is likely to change as lawmakers start hearing from the public and discussing the document with each other.
Two years ago, LePage pledged to veto his budget bill if lawmakers substantially altered it. While lawmakers made changes to the package, LePage didn’t veto it.
“Right now, the governor has said things, that ‘this is off the table,’ ‘this can’t happen,’” said Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “But things change. There’s a big chunk of time we have to go through.”
Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport, the House Republican leader, said too much has been made of LePage’s personality and his refusal to meet with Democrats.
“There’s a lot of representatives and senators that get upset at times, get emotional at times,” he said. “I sometimes feel like there’s this focus on the governor’s personality that is overblown because it sells newspapers.”
In the end, said Fredette, a former member of the Appropriations Committee, a compromise will happen as lawmakers get to work on the budget package, which would take effect July 1.
“I think everybody recognizes the governor proposes and the Legislature disposes. There are very few bills that start one way and don’t finish another way,” he said. “I have a full expectation that compromise not only should be accomplished, but has to be accomplished.”
LePage is unlikely to substantially change his style, and the Legislature has an obligation to pass a budget, said Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, the assistant Senate Republican leader.
“We’re sent here to pass a budget,” he said. “It’s our job to find common ground.”
Katz has publicly called on LePage to rethink his rhetoric in the past.
In 2011, after LePage called demonstrators protesting the removal of a labor history mural from the Department of Labor headquarters “idiots,” Katz and other Senate Republican colleagues called on the governor to moderate his tone in an essay published in multiple newspapers. And last year, after LePage called middle managers in state government “corrupt,” Katz called on the governor to apologize.
“The governor is a unique individual with his own communication style,” Katz said. “I think he has toned down some of his rhetoric, but he’s not going to change the underlying person he is. We can’t lose sight of the fact that many of his ideas are excellent in terms of making the state more competitive.”