AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative leaders have voted to cut the Legislature’s budget by $8.3 million over the next two years while at the same time bolstering security at the State House.
“This actually is probably a historic legislative council budget,“ Majority Leader Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said Friday evening. “This is probably the largest reduction from a previous year in, I would suggest, the history of the Legislature.”
The budget for the Legislature and its offices is $59.3 million in the proposed two-year state budget submitted by Gov. Paul LePage. The reductions in the legislative budget are mostly achieved through applying to lawmakers and legislative staff the same budget initiatives affecting other state workers such as suspension of longevity and step increases and changes in pension costs.
The leaders also voted to reduce out-of-state travel by 30 percent, suspend cost-of-living increases for legislators and reduce the length of each yearly session by a week, and required a task force look at additional possible savings.
“This is a reduction of about $8.9 million,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, the chairman of the council’s budget committee. “The appropriations for additional security bring that down to be about $8.3 million.”
The controversial proposal was the increased security at the State House, which will cost $546,000 over the two years. It will add one police officer and four security officers to the Capitol Police budget. They will provide additional “police presence” in the Capitol and allow for operation of a metal detector at the public entrance to the State House.
“That $550,000 is a lot of money,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the assistant Senate minority leader. “I guess I am still not comfortable with spending that money when there are many competing priorities in this two-year budget.”
He urged other leaders to reconsider the additional security expenditures to provide funds for other budget needs. Both Courtney and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, argued that additional security at the State House is overdue.
“I don’t want ever to be in the position of having had the ability to prevent a tragedy and wait until that tragedy that none of us ever want to think about occurs and then have to look back and justify in my mind why we didn’t do something,” Raye said.
He said the state has been “fortunate” that there has not been a tragedy in the Capitol given what has happened in other states. He said the additional security proposals are “moderate” and will not approach the level of security at federal buildings and in other states.
“In three different reports doing threat assessments, there have been recommendations that we move to such measures,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden. “We have a lot more threats here than come to our attention.”
She said in the years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been fundamental changes in security at the national and state levels. She said it is time for Maine to catch up with other states in improving security.
“This is not just for us, it is for the people that work in this building and all of those that visit every year,” Plowman said.
The meeting did get testy when Courtney interpreted opposition to the additional security as a threat to the overall two-year state budget.
“If this budget is going to divide on this issue, there are some other issues that I will want to bring up for discussion,” he said, “I have expressed concerns about dues to CSG [Council of State Governments] and NCSL [National Conference of State Legislatures] and I am ready to make a motion.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader, said the concerns raised by Democrats on the council are because of philosophical differences over spending priorities. She said they are not “make or break” issues.
“For me this is another step in reaching a compromise that will lead to a unanimous two-thirds budget out of the Appropriations Committee, “she said. “I don’t like everything in this budget, and I am sure I will not like everything that the Appropriations Committee does, but that is what this is all about, reaching a compromise.”
The leaders voted 8-1 for the legislative budget that was forwarded to the Appropriations Committee for inclusion in the two-year state budget.