AUGUSTA, Maine — The top Republican in the Maine House of Representatives on Saturday presented a two-year budget offer approved by Gov. Paul LePage to end a government shutdown, but it’s full of pitfalls for legislative Democrats who have thin patience.
After he and 60 House Republicans voted to reject a compromise deal early Saturday morning, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, presented a $7.1 billion plan similar to one from the governor’s office that was gossiped about in the Maine State House on Friday.
Fredette called it a document that “can get the chief executive’s signature,” but a Democrat wondered why it came so late and a Senate Republican negotiator flagged that it costs more than the rejected compromise deal.
Failure to enact a budget by 12:01 a.m. on Saturday caused Maine’s first government shutdown since 1991, leading approximately 200 protesters affiliated with the Maine State Employees Association to storm the capitol on Saturday.
Most notably, the deal Fredette laid out would fund K-12 education at $162 million over the last two-year budget cycle while repealing a voter-approved surtax on high earners expected to generate more than $300 million for schools that Republicans have aimed to kill, but progressives have tried to defend.
LePage is trying to trade that for several pet reforms, including a pilot program for a statewide teacher contract that legislative Democrats have rejected, reforming a tax break aimed at helping commercial loggers and creating a registry of tax-exempt property held by land trusts.
That education funding threshold is similar to the defeated compromise deal crafted by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport. It would eliminate a $21 million lodging tax increase that LePage has opposed absent other tax relief.
But members of the Legislature’s six-person budget committee greeted the plan with skepticism. Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth, said it was “obscene” that such an offer came after a shutdown, telling Fredette that he was “piling on demands.”
“I see no reason why I should entertain any of these when another list could show up at midnight tonight and I don’t know who I’m negotiating with,” she said. “Is it you, Mr. Fredette, or is it the chief executive?”
“What I am trying to do is get us to yes,” Fredette replied.
And Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, noted that the House Republican proposal would spend more than the Thibodeau-Gideon package, also asking Fredette whether it was “a negotiation or an ultimatum.”
Fredette said it’s a negotiation and that he saw LePage’s two biggest priorities as killing the lodging tax increase and restoring $3.5 million in savings from state employee job eliminations.
The budget panel voted unanimously to send the proposal to the Legislature’s budget office for a fiscal estimate, with Gideon saying “time is not on our side.” The office was expected to return the estimate as early as Saturday night, but the committee wasn’t set to reconvene until Sunday.