AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee dug in their heels Wednesday against any new spending this year with one caveat: If Democrats support an alternate minimum wage proposal to the one that will appear on the November ballot, maybe the GOP will come to the negotiating table.
Wednesday’s discussion came a day after Democrats unveiled a list of their priorities in terms of new spending on a range of previously approved but unfunded bills and initiatives that they categorize as emergencies or critical needs.
The list included emergency money for county jails, fighting drug addiction, funding to provide raises for state-level cops, money to bolster home- and community-based health services and funding to allow National Guard members to go to college tuition-free.
None of those initiatives or more than a dozen others on the Democrats’ list is important enough to dip into a $55 million revenue surplus that is expected over the next 15 months in state government, Republicans said. But they offered a trade.
“I don’t think there’s anything on this list that honestly, we couldn’t live without,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner. “We’d be willing to talk about some of the things here if we could get a competing measure [to the minimum wage referendum].”
Timberlake was referring to a citizen-initiated petition that has forced a question onto the November ballot, which after repeated failures in the Legislature, would raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020. A coalition of mostly business groups has proposed a more modest increase, to $10 per hour by 2020.
So far that competing measure — which would appear as the second of three choices on the November ballot, including a “do nothing” option — has encountered opposition from Democrats who argue that its proponents sidestepped chances in recent years to support a wage increase through several failed bills
Two attempts at sending to the November ballot an alternative measure have already failed in the Democrat-controlled House. Some Republicans and others are hopeful that they can revive a bill from 2015 as a vehicle to place a competing measure on the ballot.
Democrats said the list of spending initiatives they released on Tuesday, which totaled more than $43 million, was meant to start a conversation.
“We gave you our list, and I’m just wondering if you have a list,” said Democratic Sen. Linda Valentino of Saco to Republicans on the Appropriations Committee. “Do you have any priorities, or at least one priority, that you have just to get the ball rolling?”
Timberlake said Republican leaders have asked House Republicans to identify their spending priorities but that process is not yet complete. He said for the most part, the GOP is aligned with Gov. Paul LePage, who has stated forcefully that he wants the entire surplus deposited in the budget stabilization fund, otherwise known as the rainy day fund.
Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, criticized the LePage administration for refusing to consider issuing a supplemental budget, which would have both addressed spending needs and identified what money there is in surplus.
“Our purpose was to get this conversation going, and I’m glad to see it’s finally going,” said Grant. “We put a letter out [asking for financial information from the administration] and we got back nothing. That’s why we’re in an exercise where we’re stabbing in the dark, is what comes to mind.”
In recent days, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport has said that LePage would consider submitting a supplemental budget in eight months — which would be when a new Legislature is in office.
Some Democrats have their eye on another pool of money outside the General Fund surplus. The federal government recently increased its matching funds level in the Medicaid program, which could create an excess of up to $30 million by 2017 if the Department of Health and Human Services spends exactly what is currently budgeted.
“It’s fair to say that that is a place that we could use the money for direct-care workers and fighting opiate addiction,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.
Any new spending this year faces multiple challenges ranging from Republicans’ refusal to support it to the fact that the Legislature is trying to adjourn this session by April 20.
“I think we need to focus on needs versus wants and some things could wait until January [when the next Legislature is seated],” said Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough.
There could be an opening as far as LePage is concerned. Some of the bills that have been passed in the Legislature but await funding are his — including an attempt to give raises to state troopers and other law enforcement officers to deal with growing retention problems.
Without funding, that and the dozens of other bills that will die without funding could turn into a political football this election season.