Maine budget talks stall as Democrats and Republicans trade blame

Posted June 15, 2017, at 6:14 p.m.
Last modified June 15, 2017, at 8:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Negotiations on Maine’s two-year state budget stalled on Thursday when the Legislature’s top Democrat blasted Republicans aligned with Gov. Paul LePage for holding out as lawmakers breezed by their deadline for an agreement.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, angrily said during a Thursday afternoon meeting of the special six-person panel convened to close the budget amid a long impasse over education funding that it has done “no real work” this week. She blamed House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

That panel missed a self-imposed Thursday deadline to pass a budget recommendation for the next two state fiscal years beginning July 1. The missed deadline would have given the Legislature time to pass the bill, send it to Gov. Paul LePage for approval and override his likely veto, which could take up to 10 days.

As things stand now, there’s little hope of an agreement to win the necessary two-thirds approval in the Senate and House of Representatives. A state shutdown looms if a budget is not in place by June 30.

On Wednesday, Democrats and Senate Republicans backed off marginally from initial demands over education funding, but House Republicans held out for a much smaller investment and policy changes that could be difficult to formalize this late in the budget process. Many of them were rejected earlier in the session.

Gideon opened a Thursday afternoon meeting with a grim message, saying lawmakers are “not anywhere near” an agreement to avoid a shutdown and blaming House Republicans for it.

“We will not be voting anything out of this committee without a fourth caucus participating in negotiation, without any chance of that budget being able to pass both chambers,” she said, referring to House Republicans.

But Fredette said afterward that the budget process led by Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, has been flawed, faulting them for largely ignoring LePage’s January budget proposal to draft their own.

He also said talk of a shutdown is premature because LePage could sign a budget quicker than the 10-day period he’s allowed and that leaders should meet soon with LePage.

“While three caucuses may not like the idea of the chief executive … to be part of this conversation, Gov. Paul LePage is going to be part of this conversation,” he said.

The heart of the conflict has been Maine’s voter-approved 3 percent surtax on high-income earners, which would earmark an estimated $320 million over two years to boost state aid to public elementary and secondary education.. Republicans insist on eliminating the surtax while Democrats were reticent to alter it until negotiations reached a pressure point.

Last week, Democrats offered to reduce the surtax and raise other taxes, which would produce $250 million in education funding over the next two years. On Wednesday, they told Republicans that they’d be willing to go down to $200 million.

Senate Republicans have also raised olive branches, offering $110 million in increased spending without the surtax last month. They offered up another $65 million on Wednesday, bringing them within $25 million of the Democrats. However, the Republicans’ funding sources, which are largely from reductions in programs in the Department of Health and Human Services, hit some roadblocks with Democrats who are insisting on an ongoing funding source, not a one-time fix.

But House Republicans have said they won’t support spending over current levels of just under $6.9 billion — which the Senate Republican and Democratic proposals would — and have said they want excess money earmarked for certain reforms, including reducing school administrative costs to the state, experimenting with a statewide teacher contract and reducing truancy.

Senate Republicans have been caught in the middle, with Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, saying on Thursday that he hoped all four caucuses could compromise to “avoid a government shutdown, where no one wins.”

The next steps in the debate are unclear. The full Legislature is scheduled to reconvene Friday and faces a statutory adjournment date of Tuesday unless they vote to extend the session.

Bangor Daily News writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.

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