AUGUSTA, Maine — The political battle over how to best fill about a $40 million shortfall in the state’s 2014 fiscal budget came to an unceremonious end early Thursday when Republican Gov. Paul LePage allowed a bill filling the gap to pass into law without his signature.
LePage had opposed much of the proposed fixes to the budget but had not offered lawmakers his own proposal for a supplemental budget fix.
The bill also closes a gap of about $18 million for the 2015 fiscal budget.
In September, LePage refused to offer lawmakers a supplemental budget in protest over their rejection of his previous two-year proposal. LePage opposed lawmakers’ budget in 2013 because it raised the state’s sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and also tacked an additional penny onto the state’s 7 percent meals and lodging tax bringing it to 8 percent.
But the unprecedented move by LePage to not offer a plan to solve the budget gap left the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing Appropriations Committee to craft their own plan. The Maine Constitution requires the state maintain a balanced budget.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chair of the Appropriations Committee, said she was pleased the bill became law as it restores funding for several programs Democrats believe their constituents care about including $500,000 for Head Start programs, $9.5 million for public schools and $4.5 million in merit and longevity pay for state employees.
“It serves the people of Maine well,” Rotundo said. “It restores cuts to general purpose aid to education and to higher education that the governor proposed for fiscal year 2015. It honors the negotiated contract that the governor approved with state workers. We felt that was a promise in the contract he negotiated.”
Rotundo said she was, “pleased and proud” that Republicans and Democrats came together and passed a bipartisan budget that obtained “huge margins in the House and Senate.”
“In spite of the fact that the governor ducked his responsibility by not coming forward to present a supplemental budget for fiscal year 2014,” Rotundo said. “That’s never happened before. We were on uncharted waters, but we did what we needed to do and that was to come together and vote out a responsible budget.”
Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the House minority leader, also expressed some relief that supplemental budget for 2014 had become law.
“Now that we have 2014 done we can look up at what’s really now the final part of 2015 and figuring that out so we can essentially go home,” Fredette said.
Lawmakers found a variety of ways to restore the funds including taking money from revenues the state collects from casinos in Bangor and Oxford as well as surplus revenues left in a former state health insurance program, Dirigo Health.
The bill received broad bipartisan — and likely vetoproof — support in both the House and Senate earlier this year.
The Legislature still has a remaining portion of the fiscal year 2015 budget to balance but lawmakers Thursday seemed uncertain the exact amount.
“I think it’s still a little bit of a moving target,” Fredette said but he believed lawmakers would have time still to patch the 2015 budget up before the Legislature adjourns on April 17.
LePage Press Secretary Adrienne Bennett said lawmakers still had their work cut out for them and that the governor was looking for a budget that created long-term financial stability for the state.
“The true test will come when they tackle fiscal year 2015,” Bennett said. “The governor believes there are still many very tough decisions that need to be made in order to put in place a sustainable long-term budget.”