Maine House vote puts state on course to government shutdown

Posted June 30, 2017, at 4:40 p.m.
Last modified July 05, 2017, at 8:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — House Republicans dealt a fatal blow to a last-minute budget compromise by heeding Gov. Paul LePage’s advice Friday to reject the spending plan crafted by legislative leaders to avoid a government shutdown.

While a majority of the House supported the budget during two votes, Republican opposition denied it the two-thirds majority it needs to pass as an emergency measure in time to steer Maine away from a government shutdown.

In each case, the vote was 87-60 with all of the Democrats and independents in favor, along with nine Republicans. The second House vote, shortly after 8 p.m., means that the Legislature will not be presenting a budget to LePage in time to prevent a shutdown on Saturday.

In the latest odd twist in this year’s tortured budget talks, word that LePage would offer a new last-minute budget kept lawmakers in the building after the House vote that doomed the compromise. Confusion and rancor deepened as the clock ticked toward the midnight shutdown deadline.

[Here’s what happens when state government shuts down]

The compromise budget bill passed in the Senate on a 34-1 vote, which raised the stakes for the next House vote on the proposal. Only Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, opposed the budget, he said, because of the increase in the lodging tax that it contains.

After the Senate vote, legislators met individually and in groups, trying to sway colleagues toward their positions on the budget. House Democrats and Republicans held caucus meetings, leading up to the key enactment vote Friday night. But those efforts failed to alter the outcome.

The initial House vote followed a lengthy debate. Only Democrats — urging passage of the compromise budget — spoke before the second House vote.

During debate on the initial vote, Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Appropriations Committee, has led the opposition to the compromise spending plan. He objected to both its contents and the process that led to Friday’s vote, which ended with the leaders of the House and Senate negotiating the final details.

“We owe it to the people of the state of Maine to fix this document and pass a responsible budget,” Timberlake said. “I promised them I would vote for a smart, fiscally responsible policy. That is not this bill that’s in front of us now.”

[LePage: Police would work, state parks stay open in shutdown]

Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, was one of the nine Republicans to vote for the budget.

“Is it what everyone wants? No,” said Tuell. “We can scream and rant and rave and holler for the next two weeks, two months or two years and nobody is going to get everything they want.”

Some Democrats who had voiced opposition earlier during negotiations swung to vote for it.

Rep. Michael Sylvester, D-Portland, led an effort earlier this year to gather Democrats and independents to vote against the budget without a progressive revenue source to keep the state’s share of public school funding at 55 percent or more. Fifty-two House Democrats and two independents signed the pledge. Despite the fact the education surtax enacted in a November 2016 referendum was pushed out of the budget on Thursday, Sylvester voted for the compromise plan. Like many who expressed reservations about the final draft, Sylvester said the specter of a shutdown motivated him to support the plan.

“I will vote for hope,” said Sylvester. “I will vote for the young lady who emailed me less than an hour ago asking me if they would have food for the next week.”

While some senators — mostly Democrats — spoke at length about their displeasure with the compromise and the process that led to it, all but Brakey voted for the bill, in a show of support that Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he hoped would change minds in the House.

“In my estimation, this budget will be known as the education budget,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth. “This has tremendous value for our students and our taxpayers.”

The last-minute votes were the result of a controversial state budget debate that has been ongoing for several weeks, though the sticking point has been clear since November of last year when voters approved the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 to benefit public schools. LePage quickly vowed to repeal the law and legislative Republicans joined him in their opposition earlier this year.

LePage has vowed repeatedly to veto the budget — including at a State House news conference late Friday morning — but only after he has held it for 10 days, which he is entitled to do under the Maine Constitution. Unless the governor changes his mind and either signs the bill or vetoes it immediately, avoiding a government shutdown is impossible.

After the second House vote failed, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, asked about rumors that LePage would introduce a new budget bill. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said that he had engaged in conversations with LePage about that possibility and that a proposal would likely be forthcoming, although he did not say when.

As House members discussed the situation, all routes around a shutdown seemed blocked.

 

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