AUGUSTA, Maine —Bills addressing issues ranging from slot machines to renewable energy to revamping a state-sponsored health care rides program await lawmakers Wednesday at the State House.
The first week of the “short session,” which is set to end in April, starts this week.
But topping the list is what appears to be a more than $100 million state budget shortfall and no proposal from Republican Gov. Paul LePage on how to fix it.
So far, LePage has been sticking to his position that he offered lawmakers a state budget that was balanced in 2013 and they rejected it, so he will let them fix any shortfall.
Calls and email messages to LePage’s office seeking comment were not returned Monday.
Revenue sharing cuts
Beyond the budget, lawmakers will also wrangle over restoring cuts in revenue sharing made to cities and towns in 2013.
On Monday, Democratic leaders said they intend to introduce legislation that will fully restore those cuts. The net effect of those cuts is fewer services for local residents and higher taxes for local property owners, Democrats have said.
Revenue sharing to towns and cities was cut from $98 million per year to $65 million per year in 2013, a figure that’s even lower than what the state shared with local governments in 1994, Democrats said.
“We want our towns to know they can count on us to stave off more of the governor’s cuts to cities and schools,” state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the House chairwoman of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said in a prepared statement. “The state’s commitment to our communities helps keep property taxes low for middle-class families and business owners.”
Rotundo said cities such as Lewiston depend on the funds to provide services to citizens, “should not be used as a political football during an election year. We were fortunate to be able to put politics aside last session when it came to the budget and we hope to do so again.”
Majority Democrats also hope to advance legislation that will expand the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, to cover an estimated 70,000 more Mainers.
Health care, jobs and education would remain priorities for the second half of the 126th Maine Legislative session, state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said.
“Those pieces remain, we just have more specifics now as we move into a shorter session,” Alfond said. He confirmed Democrats intend to “absolutely push for expansion and believe this is the best route for health care in Maine, so that will be a big push, no surprise there.”
While Democrats were able to pass legislation in 2013 to expand MaineCare they were unable to muster the two-thirds vote they needed to override LePage vetoes of those measures.
Alfond said he believes a lot has changed in the health care arena since and that new pressure from Maine people, hospitals and many in the state’s business would aid Democrats and possibly turn votes on the health care front.
But Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he didn’t believe Republicans had vastly changed their position against expanding the state’s low-income health care program, which conservatives consider an expansion of welfare.
“If anything, our opposition has absolutely strengthened in regards to the expansion,” Thibodeau said. “The absolute failure of Obamacare and the way that’s been implemented, this is a part of Obamacare and a key component of Obamacare. I can’t imagine that Senate Republicans or any Republicans are going to be anxious to run out and sign up to be part of that failed program at this point.”
While neither Thibodeau nor Alfond could say exactly what the lawmakers would be facing for a budget shortfall, both sounded as though they were prepared there would be a substantial one.
Thibodeau said he knew Democrats wanted to restore revenue sharing with towns but without increasing taxes, which his caucus is opposed to, it would be difficult to do that.
“Somebody is going to have to step forward and make some tough choices,” Thibodeau said. “That (revenue sharing) may not be the most popular program to go after but, if not, I haven’t seen anybody else offer a solution.”
LePage has previously said, and Republicans in the minority have echoed the sentiment, that local government can do more to consolidate services and find savings in municipal budgets. In September, LePage predicted, revenue sharing would be cut again to balance the state budget.
Thibodeau said he understands and appreciates LePage’s frustration around the budget and his decision to not issue a supplemental budget in 2014 for lawmakers to dispose of.
“He offered that solution, was loudly criticized but nobody offered any solid solutions apart from raising taxes,” Thibodeau said. Lawmakers did increase the state’s sales tax by half a percent in 2013 and extended it to some additional categories.
“I certainly hope the Legislature’s had enough of that and won’t move forward with yet still another tax increase in this really tough economy,” Thibodeau said. “I can’t imagine that the people of the state of Maine would stand for that.”
Alfond said lawmakers were still awaiting details from the various departments to determine how much revenue the state would be short in the remaining year of the two-year budget cycle.
He also roundly criticized LePage for not offering a supplemental budget to help with the problem.
“He will be the first governor in the state’s history, from what we understand, that will not put forth a supplemental budget,” Alfond said.
Alfond said lawmakers were looking to solve the parts of the budget they had solid data on or problems from the previous budget they have been hearing about from constituents including the revenue sharing portion.
LePage was scheduled to appear in Lewiston on Monday during the inaugural of Mayor Robert Macdonald but the event was postponed due to weather. That event has been rescheduled for Tuesday.
While LePage and Macdonald share similar conservative political views, the two have diverged on the revenue sharing issue and Macdonald has been critical of the governor and the Legislature’s efforts to reduce funding to cities and towns.
The backdrop for any action at the Legislature in 2014 will be that a majority of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate will be seeking re-election, as is LePage.
That could lead to a highly charged partisan environment. Alfond and Thibodeau both said they expected that could be a factor.
Thibodeau, however, said he hoped lawmakers would avoid overtly campaigning from the State House.
“I am absolutely adamant that there is nobody at the State House, or very few people at the State House, who can vote for you anyway so let’s do the job the people back home hired us to do and then we can go home and campaign,” Thibodeau said.
Alfond said he tells everyone he talks with that, “the democratic process is a full-contact sport.”
“And when you do it professionally and on the merits of the bills, that’s what I think a healthy democracy is,” Alfond said. “It’s both parties, the chief executive, everyone putting out their ideas and making sure they have a full run in the Legislature.”
He said, even in an election year, the work was too important and too much needed to be done for lawmakers to be too sidetracked with campaign issues.
“Partisanship is going to be here,” Alfond said. “I think it’s my job and the (House) Speaker’s job to ensure we keep our members talking about the merits of the bills and keep proper etiquette and proper decorum so the people’s work can get done.”