Maine lawmakers forge ahead on supplemental budget without LePage

Rep. Peggy Rotundo.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 26, 2014, at 6:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee are gaining steady ground as they work to create a supplemental budget that will balance state spending and revenues for 2014 and 2015.

The state’s constitution requires a balanced budget and devoid a supplemental budget offering from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, committee members have been left largely on their own as they attempt to craft the spending document.

The committee needs to come up with about $49.3 million in new revenue or spending reductions for 2014 and about $50.3 million for 2015.

After the Legislature overrode his veto of its budget in 2013, LePage refused to issue a supplemental budget to propose spending cuts or revenue sources to fill the gaps. Traditionally, the governor proposes a supplemental budget that the Legislature uses to craft a bill that ensures state government ends each fiscal year in the black.

During meetings Tuesday and Friday, the committee reviewed dozens of ideas for new revenues and savings offered by Republicans and Democrats. Those plans include everything from removing the sales tax exemption for hospitals and private nonprofit colleges to increasing the state’s cigarette tax.

Other ideas on the list include extending a half-cent increase of the sales tax to service-providing businesses. In 2013, the Legislature approved increasing the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, while it increased the state’s meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. Those increases are due to expire when the two-year budget ends on June 30, 2015.

Hearings will be held March 5-7, with one day devoted to the 2014 budget shortfall and two devoted to the 2015 shortfall, said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the committee.

While LePage has not offered a supplemental budget, commissioners in his administration have brought forward ideas and suggestions, including some that require new spending, according to Rotundo.

Lawmakers also have included items that came from bills that have passed and include “fiscal notes” that will increase the state’s budget. Among them is a proposal to restore merit and longevity pay for certain categories of state employees who saw those contracted pay increases frozen over the last two budget cycles.

“We decided to put everything in,” Rotundo said. “And we can have a public hearing on all of those items and the public can weigh in.”

Rep. Kathy Chase, R-Wells, the lead House Republican on the committee, agreed that the proposals were a long list that included almost all the suggestions lawmakers came up with.

“We pulled in what each caucus felt was reasonable,” Chase said. “We may not agree with all of theirs and they certainly may not agree with all of ours but we pulled them into one big group.”

While Democrats have called LePage’s refusal to issue a supplemental budget a failure in leadership, Republicans have been less strident about building a budget from scratch.

Chase said Wednesday that the process is simply different.

“Usually we receive the [supplemental budget] bill and it’s already done and we can start negotiations right when we get the bill,” Chase said. “But we didn’t have a bill to start with so we had to create our own.”

Chase said that wasn’t an indictment of LePage’s lack of direct involvement in the process.

“Life is full of different little changes and we just adapt,” Chase said. “We just had to adapt to the idea that we had to create the base bill.”

Rotundo was more critical Wednesday, saying the governor was “ducking his responsibility.”

LePage has said he provided lawmakers with a balanced two-year budget in 2013 and they rejected it, so it would be up to them to balance the budget when revenues came up short. His top advisers, including Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett, have been involved in the process.

But frustrating lawmakers on the committee are ever-changing numbers from key departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which twice has revised downward the scope of its shortfall.

“We are in unprecedented territory. This is the first time that anyone can ever remember in all of Maine’s history that a sitting governor is not doing his job by putting forth a supplemental budget,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said.

On Wednesday, the Legislature also took the unusual step of passing a joint order that essentially directed the Appropriations Committee to move forward in crafting a budget to meet the state’s constitutional directive.

Alfond also noted the importance of a bipartisan budget agreement that would gain a vetoproof majority. If lawmakers fail to pass a supplemental budget bill, LePage simply would be able to cut spending department by department in what’s known as “budget curtailments” to reach a balanced budget.

Alfond would not speculate whether that was the governor’s plan.

“Go talk to him and his commissioners,” Alfond said.

He did say legislative leaders intended to reach a bipartisan agreement that would put the state’s nearly $6.3 billion two-year budget in balance.

“We are going to work with our Republican colleagues and allow our Appropriations Committee to do their work and they have showcased time and time again that they can come together and can put together a solid budget,” he said.

 

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