AUGUSTA, Maine — Top legislative Democrats negotiating Maine’s stalled two-year budget with Gov. Paul LePage reported mixed results from their meetings on Monday, but it’s unclear whether a deal will be reached to avoid a state shutdown on Saturday.
LePage has threatened to wait the full 10 days allowed by law before signing or vetoing a budget, so even if legislators strike a deal, Maine could see its first state government shutdown since 1991 if that deal does not satisfy the Republican governor.
Talks stayed mostly in a holding pattern on Monday, when the governor’s staff wasn’t discussing his role in negotiations. However, LePage will be in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with President Donald Trump on energy issues, according to Politico.
Three legislative leaders said they expect to vote on a budget by week’s end, but there’s no agreement on a package to win the two-thirds support in both chambers required to enact a budget by Saturday.
The weekend began with a tense Friday meeting between LePage and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, in which Gideon said the governor told her that the only budget proposal he’d sign if passed was the one presented by House Republicans last week.
House Republicans pitched their proposal— which would increase state education aid by $125 million over the last two-year budget while repealing the voter-approved surtax on high earners earmarked for school funding — in tandem with LePage as one that the governor would sign, contingent on certain reforms.
Democrats have drawn their line at no less than an additional $200 million for K-12 public education.
Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, had a more cordial meeting with LePage on Monday in which Gideon said the governor suggested “raising certain taxes.”
Noting that he was “encouraged” by the meeting, Jackson said LePage “would be right where we are” at $200 million for education if he wins certain reforms. House Republicans have fought for a pilot program for a statewide teacher contract that the Democratic-led House defeated as a bill last week.
When asked about Jackson’s characterization of LePage’s stance, the governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Jackson “does not speak for the governor and the governor does not negotiate in the press.”
But such an offer would outflank past Republican proposals, including from Senate Republicans, who have offered $175 million without the surtax, but have been resistant in the past to raising the sales tax and other taxes.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, has said, “We’d like to minimize any impact on the people of the state of Maine when it comes to tax burden.”
LePage has heavy sway over negotiations now: Once a budget is passed, he has 10 days to act on it and waiting that long would now force a shutdown because Maine’s next fiscal year begins Saturday.
Democrats gave the House Republican budget proposal a frosty reception when it was presented Thursday. Before that, Gideon was blaming House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, for not seriously engaging in budget discussions and risking a shutdown.
The Maine Republican Party turned the tables on Gideon with that argument during the weekend. In an email to supporters, the party blamed Gideon for weak leadership that puts her “on the brink of the greatest leadership failure in Maine in a generation.”
They also noted that 58 rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers have already pledged to oppose any budget that doesn’t have a “progressive and sustainable” source that enables Maine to fund the voter-mandated threshold of 55 percent of basic education costs. Gideon’s latest counteroffers to Republicans have fallen short of that mark.
One of the leaders of that pledge, Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, said early last week that there are likely 20 House Democrats who would have “questions” about a budget that doesn’t reflect their education funding goals. But he stopped short of saying they would shut down the government over it and faulted House Republicans for holding out.
The blame game over a shutdown is likely to play out for the rest of the week, barring some breakthrough in negotiations. If it goes any longer than that, we’ll actually have a shutdown.
But Gideon and Thibodeau said there would be a budget vote in the Legislature by week’s end whether there is a consensus agreement or not, which the Senate president called “the only realistic thing to do.”
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.