AUGUSTA, Maine — Less than 24 hours after a budget deal seemed nearly complete, the path toward a compromise in the divided Legislature was foggier than ever, once again raising the likelihood of a government shutdown.
A two-year, $6.7 billion spending plan passed with bipartisan support in the budget-writing Appropriations Committee last weekend but did not have the support of House Republicans, who threatened to block it.
Since then, leaders from both parties in the House and Senate have been meeting to hammer out a deal that can win the two-thirds support required to pass a budget. Any one of the four caucuses — House Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans — could block a deal if they don’t like it.
On Tuesday, leaders from all four groups maintained they negotiated in good faith and blamed someone else for the breakdown in negotiations.
Rank-and-file Democrats in the House were uneasy about the framework of a deal that leaked to the media Monday, which included income tax cuts paid for in part by an increase in the sales tax and a broadening of the categories of goods and services to which it’s applied. The deal, which also included a decrease in the estate tax, was deemed by the caucus to be too generous to the wealthy.
On Wednesday, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond said they were breaking off further negotiations. Instead, they’ll move ahead with the majority budget passed by the Appropriations Committee.
Eves said he would have continued talks, bearing the concerns of his caucus in mind, but said there was no point. He and Alfond said House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, backed by Gov. Paul LePage, continually brought new demands to the table every time a deal was close.
“We’ve been working around the clock to reach a compromise to bring Rep. Fredette aboard, but he keeps moving the goal posts. It’s become clear that not everyone at the table is committed to compromise,” Eves said. “We will bring the bipartisan budget to the floor as soon as possible. It’s a budget that helps everyday Mainers by boosting property tax relief and investing in our students and workers.”
Alfond had even sterner words for the Republicans who threatened to block the bipartisan compromise budget struck in the Appropriations Committee.
“It’s crystal clear that Rep. Fredette and the governor are working arm in arm to shut down government,” he said.
During a news conference, Fredette said his priorities remained unchanged since the session began: income tax cuts, welfare reform and increased spending on social services for elderly and disabled Mainers. He said Democrats pushing through a budget proposal showed they were the ones abandoning negotiations.
“Democrats continue to misrepresent the facts,” he said, surrounded by members of his caucus who showed their support for Fredette.
While furor over stalled negotiations reflected partisan tension Tuesday, the fight over the budget has not been a simple matter of Republicans battling Democrats.
In the five months since Gov. Paul LePage first released his spending proposal, the two GOP caucuses also have butted heads, albeit mostly in private. Senate Republicans were so opposed to sales tax increases designed to pay for a reduction in the income tax that they were willing to walk away from tax cuts altogether.
House Republicans, however, insisted income tax cuts be part of a deal.
Ultimately, a budget without tax reform was passed by the Appropriations Committee with a 9-4 vote, with the support of both Democratic caucuses and Senate Republicans. Fredette said House Republicans would scuttle the plan, and his caucus offered its own competing budget proposal, which included tax cuts and welfare reform.
Today, though, the majority budget has even slimmer chances of passage than it did when it failed to win unanimous support in Appropriations. Senate Republicans endorsed the plan on the condition that Democrats agree to a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature before the income tax ever could be raised.
On Tuesday, Democrats said that offer was off the table, which meant the support of Senate Republicans was, too.
As budget talks hit a wall, Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, struck the most conciliatory chord. He said the negotiations had been thwarted by politics, citing press releases and news conferences, as well as an OpEd by Fredette that had “thrown a little gasoline on the fire.”
“During negotiations yesterday, I thought we were getting very close,” he said. “And unfortunately, because of politics creeping into something that it never should, we end up where we are today, with people pulling back.”
He urged his colleagues to come back to the table, saying the window of opportunity for avoiding a government shutdown was quickly closing.
By the end of the day, after all the press conferences and finger pointing, all four of the caucus leaders were reportedly together in a room, back for a new round of negotiations.
But the clock is ticking. The legislative session is scheduled to end in a week. If a budget isn’t passed by the end of June, the state government will shut down.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.