Legislative leaders from both parties said Friday that bipartisan work on Gov. Paul LePage’s $6.1 billion budget proposal continues despite the resurgence of divisive rhetoric.
But the question remains: With more divisive debates looming, can lawmakers reach the budget compromise necessary to avoid a government shutdown?
So far, leaders of both parties are saying all the right things after a week of tension that appeared to transcend typical political histrionics. But among the rank and file, lawmakers on both sides are privately wondering if the vitriol has made budget passage more difficult.
The Legislature needs to give the $6.1 billion budget two-thirds support by June 30 in order to avoid a state shutdown on July 1, the beginning of the new state fiscal year.
The two-thirds budget requires Democrat support. Republicans, who control both chambers, announced early in the session that they wanted a consensus spending plan rather than passing a budget through a majority vote.
But the GOP is wary of Democrats — in the minority for the first time in 30 years — using the budget as leverage to win compromise on other GOP initiatives.
During Thursday’s heated floor debate over a right-to-work bill, Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said reintroducing the legislation could hurt budget negotiations.
Her comments drew a terse response from Senate President Kevin Raye, who left the rostrum to speak from the floor. Raye said both parties had a “shared responsibility” to keep state government working.
“If issues that divide us … are going to be a litmus test on whether or not we can pass a budget, then all of us have failed,” Raye said.
Raye said Friday that Republican leadership sought the two-thirds budget out of “respect for tradition and the abilities of the two parties to come up with a budget that everybody can live with.” He was also quick to note that Democrats had broken that tradition in 2005 and 1997 with the passage of majority spending plans.
“The minority [Republican] party’s views were cast aside in a very callous way,” he said. “We purposely rejected that approach. I think that infused, frankly, a pretty good atmosphere around here this year.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are wary of a state shutdown.
“I don’t want a state shutdown, and I think it’s irresponsible for people to throw around rhetoric related to a shutdown, no matter how bad things are getting,” Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader, said.
Still, the rhetoric between both parties has grown increasingly heated. Partisan battles are not rare this point in the session, but the verbal volleys started early.
For most of the session Democrats took aim at LePage. But the dynamic changed when Republican lawmakers ran point on the insurance overhaul, a bill that was originally supposed to be included in the second phase of LePage’s so-called regulatory reform package.
For the first time this session, Democrats weren’t blasting LePage, but their Republican colleagues for “ramrodding” the bill.
The partisan fight spilled into the Appropriations Committee, the panel working toward bipartisan consensus on the budget. The committee suspended its work for several days after a bitter late-night vote to waive the insurance bill’s fiscal note led to the temporary resignation of House Co-Chairman Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop.
Flood returned, but not before releasing a statement about the danger of bringing partisan vitriol into a panel that typically works toward consensus.
The focus turned to Appropriations again this week as Democrats fumed over the GOP decision to reintroduce a controversial right-to-work bill.
The ensuing debates in the House and Senate bore striking resemblance to the battle over the insurance bill. This week, following the House vote, Appropriations stalled again, albeit briefly, as Democratic members decided Wednesday night not to meet.
The panel went back to work Thursday, but Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the panel, told The Bangor Daily News that it was difficult to talk about pension reform, a major component in the governor’s budget, when a bill targeting the state employees’ union had just been reintroduced.
Cain and Raye both said Friday that the committee was still determined to reach a compromise.
“I believe that when it comes to the budget we have no choice but to find a new way to get there,” she said. “I believe on the legislative side we can and will.”
Raye was also optimistic.
“I’m encouraged,” he said. “I think it’s not unusual for issues to flare up. When you get to the end of the session, all the issues that have been bubbling come to the surface.”
And the hot-button issues keep coming.
In addition to right to work, the Legislature is slated to take up votes on an abortion bill and legislation forming a study commission that will examine the possible elimination of the Land Use Regulation Commission.