AUGUSTA, Maine — Talks on Maine’s two-year budget took a pessimistic turn Tuesday morning, when Gov. Paul LePage said he thinks state government will shut down Friday and a glum panel of lawmakers convened to report little progress in negotiations.
The state sits at less than four days before a shutdown. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, told a special budget committee that the Legislature will vote on a budget this week, but it’s unclear whether any version can win the necessary two-thirds support in both chambers.
The Republican governor looms large over the negotiations. In a radio interview Tuesday on WVOM he accused Democrats of backing measures that will “do damage” to the state — namely preserving the voter-approved 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 per year that’s earmarked for public schools.
He also said Tuesday he would not accept any last-minute proposals to increase other taxes and that any budget presented to him would have to address what he claims is the negative impact of land conservation on property taxes.
“I believe we’re going to shut down Friday night,” LePage said. “They asked me last night, what’s the cost of shutting down? The future of Maine. The future of Maine is worth shutting it down.”
But most of the Legislature sees that as a worst-case scenario, with Gideon convening a short Tuesday morning meeting of a special six-person budget committee by saying it’s “embarrassing and unconscionable” that Maine sits so close to a shutdown.
Timing is what gives LePage new leverage in this stalemate. His veto threats largely are irrelevant because the state budget needs two-thirds support in both chambers to go into effect by Saturday. That’s the same threshold the Legislature would need to overturn a gubernatorial veto.
But LePage can hold the budget for up to 10 days under the Maine Constitution until acting on it, which could trigger a shutdown no matter what the Legislature does.
LePage’s budget demands are a mix and old and new: Among the former category is axing the surtax, a General Fund budget with a bottom line in excess of $7.055 billion for the two-year cycle beginning July 1, and education reforms.
But on Tuesday, he attached other items that could further hamstring negotiations: launching a review of Maine property that is not taxed, namely land in conservation, with the goal of moving some or all of it back onto the property tax rolls.
On Tuesday, he also dug up another policy goal he’s had for years and which has been repeatedly turned back by the Legislature — allowing people to start working in Maine at age 14 instead of 16 under current law, which argued would help the state’s hospitality and tourist industries.
LePage suggested the Legislature enact the House Republicans’ version of the budget bill, with the policy changes, and said he and the Legislature could return to the school funding issue in the future if the reforms don’t work. Absent that, he put his opposition in black and white.
“I just know what I’m going to do and they’re playing chicken with me,” he said. “I’m the worst guy in the world to play chicken with because I don’t veer either way. I go straight ahead. So if there’s a collision to be had, it’s coming Friday night.”
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, told reporters at the State House Tuesday morning that while his caucus is firmly with LePage, there is some room for negotiation on some items.
“We can turn this around pretty quickly,” said Fredette. “I don’t think this negotiation is a take-it-or-leave-it negotiation. The education reforms have to be in this budget in order to make it sellable.”
Things were again stalled on the budget panel, where Gideon said Tuesday that the plan had been to run House Republicans’ budget proposal. However, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, argued against that to say he didn’t understand why the committee would vote on a product that didn’t have buy-in from the entire Legislature.
That made the committee’s next steps uncertain with closed-door negotiations likely to restart, but Gideon said the committee will vote on a budget this week, which would likely happen on Wednesday or Thursday, and send it to the Legislature by Friday.
“I know that we’re all passionate about our positions and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said, “but we should not allow our passion about our positions keep us from coming together and solving this problem within the next 24 to 48 hours.”
During Maine’s last shutdown in 1991, state workers camped on the lawn of Capitol Park in front of the State House. They are taking a more preemptive approach this year, and pressure may build in Augusta on Tuesday, when the Maine State Employees Association has scheduled a “day of action” to lobby lawmakers on the budget.
“I know none of us here think it is, but this is not a game,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who sits on the panel and represents many state workers, said. “This is having a real impact on human beings, and that includes the thousands of state employees.”
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.