AUGUSTA, Maine — Control of negotiations over Maine’s biennial budget have been wrested from the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and have been continuing, presumably, behind closed doors between House and Senate leaders.

Republican Sen. James Hamper of Oxford and Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, who co-chair the Appropriations Committee, both said late Thursday afternoon that they don’t know whether any progress has been made on bridging an impasse that has held since Sunday.

“Leadership is in control,” Hamper said Thursday evening. “I’m on a blackout.”

“I don’t know what’s being negotiated by the leadership,” Rotundo said.

On Sunday, Senate Republicans and Democrats announced that they had forged a deal on the budget. That compromise scuttled income tax reform — which Gov. Paul LePage and both parties have been working on for months — as well as several welfare reform initiatives.

LePage, for the time being, is totally left out of budget talks and is widely expected to veto the bill unless negotiations take a drastic turn.

In exchange for conceding those items, Senate Republicans reached an agreement with Democrats to support a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to increase the income tax. The constitutional amendment would have to be ratified by voters at referendum.

Many lawmakers — predominantly Democrats — have been growing uneasy about that prospect because they fear it could toss state government into financial turmoil in the event of a major downturn by the economy.

Of the three major taxes in Maine that support the majority of government services — from public schools to social support programs — the income tax is the most reliable for generating revenue for state government. That’s because the property tax is collected and spent at the local level and collections from Maine’s sales tax — with its many exemptions — are unpredictable, especially in slack times when people aren’t purchasing big-ticket items like cars and construction materials.

While the focus since Sunday has been on House Republicans and whether they’d hold together to thwart the deal by voting to sustain an all-but-certain veto from LePage, some House Democrats have started to tell reporters, off the record, that they would also oppose the budget in order to avoid having to support the constitutional amendment.

Statements like that have the power to unravel ongoing negotiations, though actually voting against the state budget with the knowledge that it would shut down government — which is what is at stake if a budget isn’t enacted by June 30 — is something everyone says they want to avoid.

As the calendar marches toward the end of the month, a failed budget vote is more likely to leave too little time to regroup and try again.

The most recent government shutdown was in 1991, when lawmakers were dealing with a faltering economy and a bitter fight over workers compensation reform. The Legislature’s current impasse is over policy ideology, given that state government is operating with funding surpluses and there is no fiscal crisis.

Legislative leaders have been in negotiations all week, but there has been no indication that they have made any meaningful progress. In fact, House Republicans and the rest of the Legislature have become, if anything, more entrenched.

Nerves are fraying, and even key lawmakers seem uncertain of the next step. Some lawmakers and staff, including Hamper, were predicting into Thursday afternoon that the budget committee would not convene Thursday night, for a second night in a row.

Then at about 5 p.m., Hamper told reporters that the committee was likely to convene and that he’d asked State House security officers and lawmakers to stay if deliberations stretched late into the night or early Friday morning.

About an hour later, the Appropriations Committee’s clerk announced that the panel would not be taking any votes Thursday, signalling that action on the budget would have to wait another day.

At least.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.