The committee that is supposed to find a path out of the budget impasse in Augusta is “too little, too late,” according to House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who said the panel is “doomed to fail.”
The six-member conference committee convened Tuesday with the ambitious goal of finding a budget compromise in time for the Legislature to enact it and send it to Gov. Paul LePage by Friday afternoon. That’s a goal the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee worked toward for more than five months until negotiations fell apart two weeks ago and the committee voted out split recommendations that have no chance of passage in the full Legislature.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, appointed themselves to the committee along with four others. Under conference committee rules, whatever compromise is reached needs the support of at least two senators and two House members. The budget that goes to the full Legislature can’t be amended on the floor. If the up-or-down votes fail, the conference committee reconvenes and starts all over again.
Because any budget deal would have to be enacted as an emergency bill requiring two-thirds support in both chambers, there is no way to budget enactment without the votes of at least 20 House Republicans if all six independents vote with the Democrats. And the Democrats have their own potential problems: 52 of them pledged a couple of weeks ago that they won’t support any budget that doesn’t increase the state’s share of public education to 55 percent of the total cost and which doesn’t identify an ongoing funding source for the increased spending.
Fredette and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a conservative member of the Appropriations Committee, said the structure of the conference committee means the budget is basically in the hands of Thibodeau and Gideon, who need the support of only Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, respectively, to push it forward.
“We’ve got essentially the two majority leaders writing the budget,” Fredette said. “This process is a failed process. … We were never told Mike and Sara were going to appoint themselves to the committee, which leaves them writing the budget and damn it, they’re setting themselves up for a failure. When that happens it’s not going to be House Republicans’ fault. This is doomed for failure.”
House Republicans have a history of sticking together under Fredette, particularly on budget bills. Two years ago, their resistance took negotiations into the final days of the legislative session. This year, Fredette and his caucus’s preferred spending plan for public schools is approximately $300 million short of Democrats’ proposal and $200 million short of Senate Republicans’.
Gideon responded to Fredette with dismay and said if he wanted to be on the committee, the rules say he had to vote on the prevailing side on Monday, when House Democrats pushed through their version of the budget. She said the minority caucus is well represented by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee.
“I trust that Rep. Winsor will faithfully represent the views of the House Republican leadership,” Gideon said in a written statement late Tuesday. “I’m truly disappointed that Rep. Fredette has such a negative view of the work ahead.”
Gideon said Democrats have been clear about their budget priorities — and given the impasse and looming deadlines, something had to be done.
“In order to continue to do our work, to serve the people of Maine and to close a budget, we must move this process forward,” she said. “We must continue our legacy of leadership and we must close this budget before June 30.”
“We’re not going to craft a perfect budget among the six of us, but I hope we’re going to come to an agreement that is acceptable to our colleagues,” he said during the committee’s first meeting.
One dynamic that could help negotiations move forward is that the conference committee is bound to negotiate in public with their deliberations live-streamed online. That is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today. Want to listen? Click here.
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.