AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday he’d rather let state government shut down than sign the biennial budget document that legislative leaders said will be on his desk by the end of the week. Democratic leaders fired back, urging LePage to veto the budget as soon as possible if that’s what he plans to do anyway.
Meanwhile, House Republicans issued a list of demands for Democrats before they’ll vote on the budget, even though both parties agree that slowing down the process now could trigger a state government shutdown.
It’s budget season in Augusta and the stakes are as high as they have been since the last government shutdown in 1991.
LePage has said repeatedly that the state will run out of money to pay some key bills by next week unless the Legislature acts. Last month, LePage submitted a change package to his biennial budget bill that dealt with the current budget year’s shortfall. The governor is now asking lawmakers to separate the current year’s budget problem from the rest of the mammoth two-year budget bill that must be in place by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown. He has proposed legislation that would do that but Democrats have yet to pull the bill into the process.
“The state of Maine is facing a dire situation that places too many Mainers in difficult positions and puts jobs on the line,” wrote LePage to Democratic leaders on Tuesday. “If appropriate action is not taken, you are harming those who provide services for Maine’s most vulnerable citizens, our state’s dairy farmers, the poor who need legal service and state employees who are uncertain about these issues.”
LePage has made it no secret that he won’t support the $6.3 billion budget bill, but he has told Democrats in recent days that he intends to take the full 10 days afforded him in the Maine Constitution before taking action. LePage declined an interview with the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday but his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Democrats are trying to back the governor into a corner.
“This is a strategy for [Democrats],” said Bennett. “They know that our backs are against the wall, but to take away the governor’s constitutional right on the 10 days, that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to give him as little time as possible to look at this.”
Democrats said LePage could fix the problem in a moment by signing the budget.
“We’ve addressed it so when we get the budget to him, either Friday or Saturday of this week, he can sign the budget, take care of all of those issues,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Wednesday. “All the issues go away with one signature. But he’s choosing politics at its worst.”
Bennett said the governor told a television crew early Wednesday that he’d rather see state government shut down than sign the budget, which includes a temporary increase in the sales tax from 5 to 5.5 percent and an increase in the meals and lodging taxes from 7 percent to 8 percent. LePage’s “no new taxes” mantra stretches back to the campaign, though Democrats and others have long argued that his proposal to cut municipal revenue sharing and curtail property tax relief programs has the potential to shift up to $275 million to property taxpayers.
“He said today that it would be less painful to have a shutdown than sign a bad budget,” said Bennett. “A shutdown is temporary. A budget is for two years.”
Meanwhile, the question dominating the State House is whether the budget can achieve the two-thirds support it needs from the Legislature as an emergency measure and then whether that two-thirds support would erode when lawmakers take up LePage’s inevitable veto.
Numerous Republicans are expected to oppose the budget because of the tax increases, though House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said there are likely Democrats who won’t vote for it either. Among their objections, according to Berry, are that the caucus last week abandoned efforts to repeal hundreds of millions of dollars worth of income tax cuts — the majority of them for the wealthy — enacted by LePage and the Republican majority in 2011.
“People are mixed,” said Berry. “Our caucus really believes in tax fairness, but we also know we need to reach compromise to move this issue forward. I don’t expect everyone on our side to vote for it. We’re committed to coming up with two-thirds on our side. Hopefully they’ll come up with their two-thirds on the other side.”
Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves said Wednesday they’re confident the package agreed on unanimously by the Appropriations Committee last week can garner two-thirds support, including some Republicans. They said the five-month process that resulted in the bipartisan recommendation of the Appropriations Committee should convince some among the GOP to support the budget. They also pointed out that House Majority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, was involved in finalizing negotiations through the night last Thursday, which indicates he supports the budget compromise reached at 5 a.m. Friday.
Fredette wouldn’t say on Wednesday whether he’ll vote for the budget. He said the question of whether other Republicans will remains up in the air.
“We’re continuing to count heads and make an assessment about where things are at,” he said. “We’re continuing to caucus it and I continue to remain steady in terms of looking at the bill, what the issues are and the attempts to resolve those issues.”
Fredette and Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, threatened Friday morning that Republicans would refuse to participate in budget votes unless Democrats moved forward three of the other major issues of this session: expanding Medicaid, paying hospitals back Medicaid debt, and merging the departments of agriculture and conservation.
“Once the House Republican caucus believes there has been meaningful progress and resolution of the above, we will then be willing to engage in the debate on the biennial budget,” wrote Fredette and Willette to Eves. “Should there not be a meaningful resolution on the above issues, we stand united in not moving forward on the issue of the biennial budget.”
Fredette had softened his stance by the end of the day after the House voted on the Medicaid expansion and both chambers were preparing to take up the hospital debt, perhaps by Thursday.
“We think our letter was meaningful and got people moving in the right direction,” said Fredette.