AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has a two-year budget after a three-day government shutdown and months of stalled negotiations. Those seeking people to blame can look in the mirror all the way back to the last election and plenty of flashpoints along the way.
Nov. 8, 2016: Maine votes to raise taxes on high earners as rural voters helped Republican Donald Trump get elected president in a schizophrenic election entrenching a divided Legislature.
The 3 percent surtax on high earners for education funding passed with 51 percent of votes, Democrat Hillary Clinton won Maine’s presidential race, but dropped the 2nd Congressional District to Trump and legislative Republicans and Democrats kept their respective Senate and House majorities, but with weaker margins.
Partisans could get a host of mixed messages from the referendum process: Republicans complained that voters didn’t know the intricacies of the four of five ballot initiatives that passed. But Democrats held it up as a sign that voters want progressive change.
In legislative elections, Maine picked 94 Democrats, 90 Republicans and two independents. Nobody complained that voters didn’t know them well enough, but nobody had a mandate.
Dec. 23: The newly elected House speaker picks a LePage foe to lead the key budget-writing committee, while House and Senate Republicans divide on style.
Gideon named Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who became a Maine household name in August when LePage left him a profane voicemail that set off a damaging controversy, to co-chair the Appropriations Committee. In the last Legislature, Gattine co-chaired the Health and Human Services Committee, fighting LePage on welfare policy.
House and Senate Republicans made differing choices: Sedate co-chairman Sen. James Hamper of Oxford, and Sen. Roger Katz, a centrist LePage enemy, kept seats alongside LePage-aligned Reps. Tom Winsor of Norway, Jeff Timberlake of Turner and Heather Sirocki of Scarborough.
Jan 6, 2017: LePage releases his final two-year budget plan, proposing a flat income tax by 2020 and deep welfare cuts, but it never has a chance.
After the Legislature enacted two straight two-year budgets over LePage vetoes in 2013 and 2015, the governor released a proposal that contained many of his old ideas, including a flat income tax and deep welfare cuts.
Gideon called the ideas “old” and “tired,” while Republicans praised the overall focus of the budget but stayed away from many of the details. Then, they all went to work crafting a new budget.
April 6: Democrats roll out a countering plan, while Republicans dismiss it and say they won’t accept a budget that does not repeal the voter-approved surtax.
Legislative Democrats’ unveiled their “Opportunity Agenda,” a plan to spend $265 million in anticipated new revenue using the last budget as the framework. Much of it was directed at property tax relief. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, called it “a therapy session.”
Republicans also dug in against the surtax, with Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, saying his party “will accept nothing less than a repeal” in the budget.
June 13: Budget negotiations stall in the Appropriations Committee, so Thibodeau and Gideon convene — and lead — a special committee whose work is poisoned from the start, allowing LePage to re-enter the process.
The budget-writing committee voted out four different budgets in early June, then Democrats offered to trim the surtax, angering their base. But it didn’t land with Republicans and Maine’s budget impasse became dire.
So, Thibodeau and Gideon took their chambers into procedural votes allowing them to send it to a six-person committee. House Republicans weren’t on board with that plan and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, told the Bangor Daily News on the first day the panel met that its work was “doomed to fail.”
Rank-and-file Republicans groused that the two presiding officers named themselves to it, and some Democrats didn’t like it, either. Days later, the process stalled further in that committee and Gideon blasted House Republicans for holding out.
But that allowed LePage back into the budget process, stretching negotiations into the 10-day window before a shutdown, the period of time that the governor can hold a bill before signing or vetoing it. It effectively meant that any budget deal would have to pass LePage’s muster.
July 1: In a show of loyalty to LePage, 60 House Republicans block a Thibodeau-Gideon budget and force a shutdown, then make a counteroffer.
Just more than a day before Maine’s Saturday shutdown, Thibodeau and Gideon grew tired of the committee’s lack of progress and cut their own budget deal, sending it to the floor on June 30, which angered House Republicans and Senate Democrats alike.
It proposed cutting the surtax but included $162 million in additional education funding, but it left a lodging tax increase in place that LePage had already expressed opposition to earlier in the day. The next day, he held a hastily arranged news conference to say he wouldn’t sign it.
But the Thibodeau-Gideon deal moved to the floor anyway and was officially defeated just after the state shut down at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, with 60 House Republicans voting against it to keep it from getting two-thirds support.
Drama under the State House dome heightened after that, when Republicans said LePage had his own plan and a list of his demands circulated in the hallways and lawmakers went home.
About 200 protesters led by the state employees’ union descended on the State House after sunrise, chanting “shame” at the holdout Republicans, whose plan was fleshed out by day’s end, keeping the framework of the Thibodeau-Gideon budget with the lodging tax increase out and additional education and conservation reforms in.
July 2: The panel mostly ignores that plan and votes out another package defying LePage’s no-tax hike warning.
In a late-night vote, Thibodeau and Gideon lead the panel into voting for yet another budget that defied LePage by leaving the lodging tax increase in after he issued a Facebook video saying he wouldn’t agree to a tax increase. House Republicans signaled that he wouldn’t sign it.
July 3: House Republicans again block that deal, but LePage and Gideon hastily negotiate a deal to ax the lodging tax increase and end the shutdown.
When that deal went to the House floor, a smaller group of 54 Republicans again withheld their votes to block a two-thirds majority. But negotiations dragged on in private.
By 9:30 p.m., LePage and Gideon hammered out a deal that eliminated the lodging tax increase in exchange for blocking changes to Maine’s behavioral health system and adding federal funds to early childhood education programs.
The Legislature approved it easily and the shutdown ended when LePage signed it just after 1 a.m. on July 4, holding a celebratory signing alongside a group mostly made up of House Republicans and praising them for holding firm to control majority Democrats.
“And once you do that, it’s over for the majority,” he said, foreshadowing what could be a House Republican strategy next year. “You are now formidable.”