AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has threatened to sue the state’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee if they do not balance the state budget without using what he called accounting gimmicks.
Speaking to a group of Kiwanis Club members in Dexter on Nov. 15, the governor criticized the use of unidentified savings, which he claims make the budget approved by the Legislature in July look balanced when it isn’t. LePage vetoed that budget, but lawmakers overrode his veto.
“I’m going to insist that the budget be balanced. The constitution of the state of Maine requires it and it hasn’t been balanced since I’ve been governor,” LePage said, according to the Picataquis Observer. “In January, I’m going to urge [the Appropriations Committee] to balance it, and if they don’t, I’m going to sue them in Supreme Court for violating the constitution of the state of Maine. I think it’s time we take a bold move.”
The biennial budget includes savings “placeholders” totaling about $74 million, to be realized by closing $40 million in tax loopholes and trimming about $34 million in executive branch spending. The total budget is about $6.3 billion.
A task force is working on the tax loopholes, while the governor’s Office of Policy and Management put together a plan for the executive branch savings. If the Legislature fails to realize the $74 million savings, the budget will not be thrown out of balance: The budget threatens cuts to municipal revenue sharing to make up for the tax expenditure savings, and automatic curtailment if executive savings aren’t found.
Members of the Appropriations Committee argue that the budget was balanced and that work continues to ensure it stays that way. Fluctuations in revenue and spending are nearly unavoidable, and the state’s nonpartisan financial office said the budget is only required to be balanced when it is approved.
Budgets have historically been balanced by supplementing the approved spending plan with adjustments initiated by the governor, but LePage has said he will not issue a supplemental budget this year. Leading lawmakers say that they will propose their own supplement if necessary.
LePage has threatened the lawsuit before. In October, at an event in Falmouth, the governor said the budget “is unconstitutional, it’s not balanced. When [lawmakers] come back in January, if they don’t really fix it, I will file suit against the Legislature.”
Though the governor has now threatened to sue at least twice, it’s an empty threat, according to Attorney General Janet Mills, who on Wednesday said she would not file — or authorize any outside counsel to file — such a “frivolous lawsuit.”
“If the governor determines that his budget is out of balance, he is authorized to submit a supplement budget in January,” she wrote in a statement. Maine law prohibits the governor, or any other state official, from hiring outside counsel unless authorized by the attorney general.
Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said budget balancing is not just about whether the ledger clears zero at any particular point in time; it’s about putting together long-term, structural changes to establish fiscal stability that ensures the budget stays balanced for its entire term.
“We know that lawmakers rejected the governor’s proposed budget he presented last year and they refused to implement structural changes necessary for a budget to remain balanced,” she said. “Simply put, Gov. LePage is trying to bring fiscal stability to a state that has not had it in many decades and he’s succeeding in many ways, but the budget continues to be a problem Democrats do not want to fix for the long-term.”
If the savings initiatives are just gimmicks, it could be argued that both the executive and legislative branches are responsible: The $34 million savings initiative was LePage’s idea, while the tax expenditure savings plan was brought forward by Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York.
The governor has since distanced himself from the parts of the budget that were in his original proposal because the budget passed by the Legislature was significantly different than the one he had submitted.
Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the only Republican senator on Appropriations, said Wednesday that placeholders have been included in every budget he’s seen during his 10-year tenure in the Legislature. He also said budget balancing is always an ongoing project.
“You’re always dealing with moving targets and revenue forecasting updates, and you do the best you can with the information you have,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in the Appropriations Committee. We work very well together.”
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, is co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, and was taken aback when she heard of the governor’s comment.
“The budget that we adopted in July had to be balanced, and it was,” she said.
The tenor of recent volleys between the legislative and executive branches show just how wide the canyon between the two has become. The governor’s threat comes just a short time after Democratic leadership accused LePage of violating Maine’s constitution with a policy of keeping top administrative chiefs away from legislative committees and panels, opting instead to keep all communication between the two branches of government in writing only.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.