AUGUSTA, Maine — With no budget deal in sight, the Maine Legislature has the state teetering on the edge of a government shutdown, which is likelier now than at any other time in the tumultuous era of Gov. Paul LePage.
And the path to averting one runs through the offers, counter-offers and attacks leveled at the State House during the past few months.
The legislative divide is mostly about education funding, but with LePage’s backing, House Republicans also want significant school reforms. But leaders in both parties have to mind their own divides and they’re here in part because of LePage, who will loom larger the later debate goes.
Democrats and Senate Republicans are only about $25 million apart on education funding. These are the groups that have moved most in negotiations so far.
In April, Democrats insisted on the 3 percent surtax on high-income earners approved by voters last year that is expected to generate more than $300 million over two year. Republicans said they wouldn’t accept a budget that doesn’t fully repeal the tax.
Last week, Democrats came down to $200 million in additional education funding over the last budget. Republicans are holding firm on the surtax, but they came from $110 million to $175 million last week.
But House Republicans are holding out for education policy changes that have proved to be hard sells to Democrats. This LePage-friendly caucus, led by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, hasn’t engaged in much dealmaking so far.
For them to agree to increase spending on education, House Republicans say that some of the money must be earmarked for reforms, including a pilot program for a statewide teacher contract. The problem? The Democratic-led House voted Tuesday against a bill for a statewide contract.
It’s also worth noting that two education experts — Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor — have already presented 45 pages of education ideas for a budget compromise, including expanding a LePage initiative to incentivize regionalization and consolidation.
Democrats want to blame any shutdown on House Republicans. They say they don’t want one, but they’re openly toying with the idea. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, told WCSH last week that if government shuts down, it’ll be because of House Republicans.
House Republicans have pushed back on that sentiment, with members calling it in Facebook posts “the biggest lie” in Maine and saying that they’re fighting “special interest groups” — like the Maine Education Association, a Democratic-aligned teachers union, to work for reform.
But Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a budget committee member and key LePage go-between, said Monday while “in no circumstance” does he want a shutdown, he likened Republicans’ push for education reform to his party’s 1991 effort to reform workers compensation that led to Maine’s last shutdown. Fredette made a similar comparison Wednesday on WVOM.
“You have to get this fixed once and for all,” Timberlake said.
Not everyone is happy with their leaders’ negotiating tactics. Gideon and Fredette have considerable influence on their caucuses — that’s why they’re the leaders — but it only goes so far, and caucuses’ positions will weaken if leaders anger their fringes because a budget needs two-thirds approval in both chambers.
Many Democrats and progressive groups were irked when Gideon offered earlier this month to trim the surtax from 3 percent to 1.75 percent, seeing it as a capitulation. Last month, 52 Democrats signed a pledge saying they wouldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fund 55 percent of education.
One of them, Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, said Tuesday that there are likely 20 members of his caucus who would have “questions” about a budget that negotiates away the surtax in exchange for regressive taxes.
Fredette hasn’t been spared, either: After he told the Bangor Daily News last week that a special budget panel convened by Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, was “doomed to fail,” the moderate Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, criticized “people who have tried their darndest to sabotage, derail, and destroy the budget process” in a Facebook post.
LePage hasn’t done the budget process any favors so far, but as time goes on, he holds more power over the budget. Maine’s last two budgets in 2013 and 2015 were enacted over LePage vetoes. His January proposal was similar to his last one, proposing welfare and income tax cuts alongside proposals to overhaul the public education system — ideas that have previously been turned back. Legislators haven’t been able to put the pieces back together so far.
But LePage has benefited from House Republicans’ holdout. The budget is due on June 30, putting the Legislature within the governor’s 10-day window to hold legislation before signing or vetoing it, leaving legislators at his mercy on an eventual deal and unable to simply bypass him.
On Tuesday, LePage told WVOM that he’s directing his Cabinet to prepare for a shutdown while predicting one won’t happen. At the same time, he wants any budget to contain ideas that the Legislature has rejected before, such as tightening a tree growth tax break and taxing property owned by land trusts.
And it wouldn’t be LePage without a bit of trolling: From a Belfast event on Wednesday, he tweeted to Gideon, saying his Rotary Club audience “would like to know where the budget is.”
“Budget coming,” she replied — perhaps too hopefully. “Will you pledge to act immediately and avoid shutdown?”