AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans in the Maine House of Representatives voted to force a gridlocked Legislature to adjourn by Wednesday’s end in a dispute with Democrats over a spending package, but the session stretched into Thursday for procedural reasons.
A fight over changes to the state tax code and funding for Medicaid expansion boiled over at the State House in a political game of chicken on Wednesday, which began with House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport and fellow Democrats delaying action on several Republican bills.
The tabled bills included one from Gov. Paul LePage that would shield elderly Mainers from foreclosure and several uncontroversial measures as Democrats battled with House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who stirred the State House on Tuesday by saying that House Republicans may not extend the session.
The five-day extension — which required two-thirds votes in both chambers — was unanimously passed in the Republican-led Maine Senate. But before 7 p.m. on Wednesday, 66 Republicans voted against it in the House, where they also worked against Senate Republicans in the 2017 budget battle that produced Maine’s first government shutdown since 1991.
After Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, said he was “certain” that lawmakers could finish necessary work by midnight on Wednesday, Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, rose to call that a “lie,” “citing a complicated tax conformity bill that had yet to be debated and was rebuked by Gideon after loud protests from Republicans.
“I don’t think the people of Maine would be upset if we went home,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, “because I think the people of Maine and the people of this great country are getting sick and tired of watching politicians argue and fight over the most tedious things.”
Rep. Kent Ackley, I-Monmouth, said he felt an obligation to Maine voters to finish the work the Legislature set out to do, and that others should, too.
“The voters have grown weary of a government that sits on its hands and refuses to do its job because we cannot find a way to talk to one another,” he said.
But House action stretched past midnight as the chamber discussed an order which eventually passed that would keep bills alive in the event of a special session. After midnight, Gideon ruled that because nobody objected to the Legislature running late, it was still in session.
The larger dispute revolves around the Legislature’s failure to reach a deal on Republicans’ bid to conform Maine to federal tax code changes and a Democratic priority of start-up funding for Medicaid expansion, which Fredette and other leaders have traded blame over this week.
It is endangering those and other priorities, including a package of bonds to send to voters in 2018 and raises for direct-care workers. The latter was included alongside funds to administrative positions related to Medicaid expansion in a $68 million spending proposal led by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.
After that proposal was aired, Fredette emerged from a closed-door meeting with House Republicans to say he would be “shocked” if one of his members voted to extend the session.
Fredette said while Republicans support some of the individual items in the package, they don’t support the Medicaid expansion funds and also want to pass a bill to slow down minimum wage increases — which Democrats oppose.
“The issue of the Medicaid expansion here is a poison pill,” he said.
In stark contrast to the fiery House debate, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate both bemoaned the lack of consensus in the House before adjourning for the night, with Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, saying, “I’ve just never seen anything like this.”
“We’ve got a long list of things left unfinished,” said Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.
BDN State House bureau chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.