AUGUSTA, Maine — The eventful era of Gov. Paul LePage probably was destined all along for the first state shutdown since 1991, and the fighting that led to it will have lasting implications on Maine.
The state’s three-day shutdown ended early on July 4, when LePage and majority Democrats in the House of Representatives struck a deal eliminating a voter-approved 3 percent surtax, replacing it partially with another $162 million in school funding without raising taxes.
By itself, the shutdown had little impact: It enveloped just one day of state business, workers will be paid for that day and state parks were open the whole time.
But the discord in the debate — real or kayfabe — shows the divisions in Maine’s two major political parties well as both look for a leader to emerge to take LePage’s place in 2018. Until then, he’ll continue to set a tone for Maine’s increasingly divisive politics.
The split between Senate Republicans and LePage’s harder-line camp is rawer than ever as the party grapples with an uncertain future beyond 2018. The LePage era has been kind to Republicans, who have gained the 2nd Congressional District and won back the Maine Senate during his term in a state that still has 53,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
But during the budget battle, Republicans weren’t on the same page or even honest with each other: LePage admitted Thursday that he left a false voicemail for Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, saying he was leaving town during the shutdown just so senators would call him back.
Senate and House Republicans were out of sync throughout the entire budget process, which stalled for months before Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, crafted their own deal less than a day before the shutdown.
LePage implored House Republicans to kill it in a Blaine House meeting on the morning of June 30. All but one Republican senator voted for it, but 60 House Republicans withheld the needed two-thirds majority, forcing the shutdown on a tense day at the State House.
All day, observers could see heated talks between senators and representatives in hallways, where rank-and-file Republicans from each chamber didn’t seem to understand each other.
Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, complained that evening that the budget made too many concessions to Democrats, saying “it was continually how much more do we give, how much more do we give, how much more do we give and we get nothing back.”
The same night, Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said she had just talked to a Republican House member who asked her, “Who’s drinking the Kool-Aid? You or us?”
“I would say that both parties were divided, but today I saw Democrats stand in line whether they hated that budget and voted and pushed that green button,” she said. “So, I would say that maybe the Republicans are more divided than we even realize.”
LePage, Thibodeau and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, are term-limited in 2018, so it’s unclear whose style will reign over the party. Seven Republican senators and 14 representatives face limits. Only one Democratic senator and seven representatives do.
With a progressive base but a legislative penchant for soft compromise, Democrats still are having trouble dealing with LePage. Maine Democrats have problems, mainly their diminished standing in the LePage era. Yet there’s an appetite for progressive policy. Four of five Maine ballot questions passed in 2016, including the surtax and a minimum wage hike.
But Democrats compromised the former away in the budget deal amid Republican opposition to it. Many also voted with Republicans to repeal a phase-out of the tipped minimum wage in the latter question, taking heat from the progressive Maine People’s Alliance in the process.
Gideon also faced criticism for her negotiating tack. Even some in Maine’s Democratic operative class questioned her early June offer to trim the surtax, wondering if she showed her hand early. Her initial deal with Thibodeau left Senate Democrats behind and led to criticism from them.
This showed when Gideon and Thibodeau appeared on Maine Public’s “Maine Calling” on Wednesday. Nico Jenkins of Blue Hill, a local leader of Indivisible, a progressive movement, called in to say the surtax compromise represents “the death of the Democratic Party.”
He said that Democrats “continue to negotiate with people who really aren’t interested in negotiating” and the surtax should have been non-negotiable. Gideon responded to say that keeping government open was her top priority and Maine can’t allow “death of government.”
She has also highlighted the $162 million in education funding as “the largest investment in public education in our state’s history,” matching Republican rhetoric on the issue which would be true if the surtax — which was expected to generate $300 million — never existed.
Taryn Hallweaver, a Maine People’s Alliance organizer, found a silver lining in a Friday podcast, saying while it’s “fairly mind-boggling” that a referendum question was wiped out in eight months, it nevertheless “shaped the debate of an entire legislative session.”
In 2018, Democrats will be looking for a leader: Their only well-known gubernatorial hopefuls are Sanford attorney Adam Cote and Hallowell lobbyist Betsy Sweet, with Attorney General Janet Mills of Farmington and former House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick mulling runs.
Mills and Cote milled about at the State House during the shutdown weekend, but neither is a progressive darling: The attorney general has fought civil libertarians on criminal justice policy and Cote ran for Congress as a moderate in 2008, making it unclear where liberals will land.
Whether he ‘won’ this battle or not, LePage remains the most powerful person in Maine politics and he’ll define next year’s race to replace him. The answer to the question of whether LePage or anyone else “won” in the shutdown depends on where you sit.
He got Democrats to amend out a lodging tax increase on the final day, but Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, offered that before the shutdown. In the end, LePage traded it for halting behavioral health system changes and allocating more federal money to early childhood education.
LePage was allowed back into the budget battle when House Republicans dragged negotiations within 10 days of the shutdown, the period of time that he’s allowed to sign or veto a budget. That forced legislators to come to him with a palatable offer, after he had effectively been blocked out of negotiations for months because the two-thirds majorities needed to pass a budget would be enough to override a veto.
This budget will set up a battle over another in 2018: It leaves funding for direct-care workers unaddressed in the second year and continuing it will require a supplemental budget.
For their part, LePage and House Republicans are acting like they won and will keep winning. Before he signed the budget bill, he praised the caucus for sticking together, saying Fredette told him “we’re going to be in the driver’s seat” during the supplemental budget fight.
Gideon has pushed back, saying on the radio LePage will be “less relevant” next year as a lame duck. But LePage has a way of dominating most Maine political debates and the 2018 campaign will be defined by him.
Mary Mayhew, his former welfare chief and the only well-known Republican running to replace him now, will praise him. Democrats will joust to show how vociferously they oppose him. Independent Maine State Treasurer Terry Hayes of Buckfield may point to her sides and shrug.
Until he’s gone, it’s still LePage’s Maine and we’re still living in it.