AUGUSTA, Maine — Five months and 10 days after he floated a two-year budget proposal largely ignored by the Legislature, Gov. Paul LePage has muscled his way back into their stalled and dysfunctional budget process with the state as close as it’s been to a shutdown during his tenure.
LePage met Friday morning with Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. Gideon described the meeting as generally unproductive.
“I didn’t really see any progress from our meeting this morning,” said Gideon to reporters Friday afternoon. “Having a meeting the morning after the deadline we set for ourselves to have an agreement is not particularly helpful.”
After meeting with the four leaders, LePage met with the House Republican caucus, which has drawn criticism from Democrats as the holdout group preventing a compromise that would break the budget stalemate.
Those meetings came one day after an unproductive Thursday meeting of the six-person committee tasked with closing the Legislature’s impasse on education funding, where Gideon raised the specter of a shutdown to blast LePage-aligned House Republicans.
“When all these things fail,” she told WCSH, referring to services that could be stopped, “there will be one party who didn’t come to the table to make sure that state government kept functioning.”
While Democrats from both chambers and Senate Republicans have hedged on initial budget demands during the past week, House Republicans led by Fredette have held out to establish a $6.9 billion upper limit on spending and add conservative education reforms to the mix.
Gideon said among the items mentioned by LePage on Friday was a proposal to allow municipalities to tax nonprofit organizations for up to 50 percent of their value. That idea has been floated by LePage and others in the past but has not gained traction because of outcry from organizations such as hospitals.
LePage’s office did not respond to questions from the Bangor Daily News on Friday.
As the special budget committee was walking away in frustration Thursday evening, LePage released a video through the Maine Republican Party, saying “politicians in Augusta are using the possibility of a state shutdown to pass an irresponsible budget,” while claiming that “sensible Republican House members are asking for a better deal.”
For now, the delay in crafting a budget may have given LePage more power over the final product. That added power derives more from timing than a veto threat, as an emergency budget bill must pass both chambers with two-thirds majorities, which would be enough to override a veto.
On Thursday, the Legislature stumbled past a deadline to vote a budget out of the committee, which means any final budget that gets two-thirds approval in both chambers is now virtually assured to get to LePage’s desk with less than 10 days — the period he can hold a bill before signing or vetoing it — before a shutdown that would come if there is no budget by July 1.
Fredette said the governor is willing to work to avoid that, while Thibodeau said Friday he’s encouraged that LePage is willing to meet and the impasses can be bridged. The Senate leader said “there has to be a deal” and everyone must be more flexible the later the process runs.
“It doesn’t matter whether the deal is done today, tomorrow, next week, June 30 or the middle of July,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how much chaos is involved in the process.”
The House and Senate both adjourned Friday afternoon with plans to reconvene on Monday, although House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, advised members that they could be called back during the weekend to vote on a budget deal, should leaders reach one.
As lawmakers headed out of the State House to their vehicles late Friday afternoon, leaders had left the chambers and there was no evidence that the fear of impending “chaos” had lessened.
Legislative leaders plan to meet at 9 a.m. Saturday to continue trying to hammer out an agreement.
BDN State House bureau chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.
This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.