October 23, 2017
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Maine budget negotiators work toward a last-minute deal to avoid shutdown

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff
Updated:
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta

A six-person special budget committee edged closer to a deal Wednesday afternoon but more work remains before sending a package to the full Legislature for votes.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks as lawmakers must pass a budget with two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate and have Gov. Paul LePage act on it by 11:59 p.m. Friday to avert Maine’s first government shutdown since 1991.

Members of the committee and legislative leaders have been meeting in recent days and say they found common ground on a number of issues. Many of those were presented Wednesday by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. Among the proposals by Katz were the following:

— An additional $35 million for public education, above the Senate Republicans’ previous offer. That brings their offer to $146 million over the next two years, which is still more than $50 million short of the latest offer from Democrats.

— Additional funding for property tax relief programs compared with Senate Republicans’ previous offer, worth approximately $35 million but about $14 million less than current law.

— Additional funding for home-based direct care workers and workers who work with people with intellectual disabilities or autism, which would be funded with $4 million in Medicaid funding and $15 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

— $2 million in debt service money for the University of Maine System.

— To fund some of these initiatives, Katz proposed raising the state’s lodging tax, which is currently 9 percent, to 10 percent. Senate Republicans had previously refused to consider additional revenue sources to support the biennial budget.

The proposals by Katz would create a biennial budget of about $7.1 billion, which is higher than the $7.055 billion limit that Gov. Paul LePage and House Republicans have said they would support. The current biennial budget, which expires Friday, is around $6.8 billion.

It was unclear whether the budget proposal could garner two-thirds support. A spokesman for House Republicans said they were reviewing the proposal. The committee was not scheduled to meet again on Wednesday but Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon told House members late Wednesday that she and others would be working through the night in an effort to forge a compromise in time for the Legislature to vote on a budget on Friday.

“We would then be in a posture where we would be waiting for [LePage] to sign or veto a bill if we are able to pass a bill,” Gideon said. “If we are not successful in passing a budget, folks should expect that we will be here every day until we pass a budget.”

The conference committee convened on June 13 after negotiations on the Appropriations Committee and among legislative leaders failed to produce a state budget compromise that could win the necessary two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate. The committee has met a handful of times during that period but little or no negotiation has happened in public.

Rather, the meetings have consisted of the various factions in the budget debate restating their positions, with the exception of June 23, when Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, presented a budget plan that moved his caucus closer to the others but contained a number of provisions that are nonstarters for Democrats and possibly some Senate Republicans.

Earlier this week, some members of the committee planned to send that version of the budget for a vote by the full Legislature, but it was pulled from consideration by House Republicans on the grounds that they assumed it would fail.

Wednesday marked the end of the committee’s 10-day statutory window to vote out a budget recommendation, though the House and Senate were expected to extend that window Wednesday afternoon. Failure to enact a state budget by Friday and avoid a government shutdown appears to become more likely by the hour because of time that is required for legislative staffers to draft the budget bill and for the House and Senate to vote on it in time for LePage to sign it or veto it, the latter of which would require legislative override votes.

LePage said this week that even if the Legislature can approve a compromise, he might hold the budget bill for up to 10 days that he is given to act under the provisions of the Maine Constitution before vetoing it. He has said he would veto any budget with a bottom line of more than $7.055 billion and which includes the education surtax enacted by voters last year at referendum.

LePage said on Tuesday during a radio interview that “the future of Maine is worth shutting it down.”

In a news release on Wednesday, LePage said his administration does not want a shutdown and blamed others for it if it happens.

“We are not fueling the hysteria whipped up by the media, labor unions and Democrats to scare state employees,” he said. “However, we are taking every precaution to prepare for a government shutdown in case the Legislature fails to do its job.”

 


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