Other than the timing, LePage’s budget offers few surprises

Lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and the public have had a couple days to study Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s final biennial state budget proposal, which his administration released late Friday night.

Breaking from recent tradition, LePage and members of the executive branch opted against presenting the budget by briefing lawmakers or the media, although the written delivery does mirror the way LePage gave his state of the state address in 2016. The online presentation means there has been no chance so far for questions about the documents, which number well in excess of 800 pages, just for the General Fund. There is also a 2018-19 Highway Fund budget, which is mostly funded with federal dollars, as well as smaller supplemental budget bills aimed at making adjustments in the current fiscal year.

There will be plenty of time for questions. LePage’s administration — some of whom told reporters Friday that the late-night delivery of the budget was because elements of it were still under development — did provide a 30-page written summary of highlights. While the real meat is in the budget document itself, the summary made a few things clear:

By government standards and given the relatively stable economy, LePage’s budget proposal is austere: Though $6.84 billion over two years is a tremendous amount of money, the General Fund proposal represents a just 1.6 percent increase — or about $109 million — over the current budget in a year when revenues are well ahead of projections.

Fiscal conservatives should be pleased that LePage is attempting to hold spending down. With contracted raises for public employees and costs going up for a range of goods and services, a 1.6-percent proposed increase required some cuts. Some of the savings will be through 500 state positions LePage wants to eliminate before launching a “vacancy study” which could further reduce the state’s workforce.

The budget is bold, but not as bold as the one he teased: There are huge reforms, including LePage’s proposal to repeal and replace Maine’s school funding formula, to incentivize consolidation of Maine’s public schools and administrative structures and to institute a deep income tax cut. But when you compare it to what LePage said for months about what it would contain, it fell a bit short. He said in October that he’d put the income tax at a flat 4 percent; the budget proposes an eventual flat rate of 5.75 percent. He also said he’d do that without raising sales taxes. He didn’t raise the rate, but he still proposed a broadening of it to include concerts, theaters, household services and personal services including barber shops and salons. That’s similar to — but not as bold as — his budget proposal from two years ago.

The budget is full of welfare cuts: LePage won re-election in 2014 with a campaign built around a promise for welfare reform and his administration says the budget proposal would cut $140 million from the Department of Health and Human Services’ baseline budget. Half of that is in reductions to the MaineCare program, the state’s version of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. The biggest single cut there — at $33 million — is eliminating Medicaid coverage for able-bodied parents with earnings over 40 percent of the federal poverty level. He’d also cut time limits for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years and eliminate General Assistance funding.

The budget is, in a way, unsurprising: Many of LePage’s initiatives are continuations of projects he has talked publicly about or launched years ago. Reforming education, welfare and cutting taxes are familiar tenets in the LePage doctrine.

The budget will face opposition: Just like his previous spending proposals, this budget will go through months of public hearings and deliberations at the State House. Just like the previous ones, it is sure to see major changes at the hands of Democrats and Republicans, which could set up another veto from LePage. But that’s still months away. — Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • The Sessions sessions: Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, faces a minefield confirmation process, based on reports of early opposition that is mounting. However, Sessions will have a powerful ally in Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who not only supports him but is poised to introduce him in confirmation hearings and be his chief ally. That is already causing some push-back in Maine, including from EqualityMaine, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers. “We have zero confidence in his ability to set aside his hostility towards LGBT people and be fair and impartial as Attorney General,” said the organization’s executive director, Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, in a written statement on Monday. Sessions’ confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin Tuesday in Washington.
  • More of Collins in the spotlight: The Sierra Club and 350 Maine are calling on Sen. Collins to oppose Trump’s nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, energy and state departments because of their views against the existence of human-induced climate change. The groups will hold a news conference today, followed by a protest at Collins’ Portland office.
  • L.L. Bean fires back at boycott: The Freeport-based outfitter is a target of #grabyourwallet, a group urging progressives to boycott companies seen as friendly to Trump. That’s because heiress and board member Linda Bean, a granddaughter of the company’s founder and longtime Republican donor, gave big bucks to a pro-Trump PAC. In a Facebook post, L.L. Bean Executive Chairman Shawn Gorman said the company is “deeply troubled by the portrayal of L.L.Bean as a supporter of any political agenda,” with family owners holding political views “across the political spectrum, just as our employees and customers do.”
  • Celebrating the First Amendment: Converting the Gannett House in Augusta to a First Amendment museum has begun. Today, crews from Winslow-based Jacobs Glass will begin removal and restoration of the building’s windows and doors, a project that will take until spring. Gannett House is located near the State House, at 184 State Street in Augusta. It is owned and overseen by a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization “committed to stimulating and inspiring public understanding of the rights and responsibilities inherent in the First Amendment.” (Correction: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that the building is state owned.)
  • Ethics Commission on the job: The Maine Ethics Commission convenes today to consider several alleged campaign finance violations. Check out the agenda and supporting documents by clicking here.

Reading list

I know all about buttons now

In Friday’s Daily Brief, I complained about some new dress shirts I bought that have difficult-to-deal-with buttons dead center in the back of the collars. I couldn’t figure out the point, but two loyal Daily Brief readers have set me straight.

One reader, all the way from Kansas City, wrote to inform me that those buttons are “considered very Ivy League.” I had no idea. A shirt sale appears to have raised my profile.

Another reader was far more detailed. “The center collar button isn’t new, it’s old,” she wrote. It dates back to when collars were separate from shirts and had to be attached and apparently its phasing out was very controversial.

“Tradition is a tough thing to mess with,” she wrote before offering a pro tip about dress shirt care: “In case your mother never shared this tip, it’s best to wash and dry your button-down shirts with the buttons undone as it will reduce friction wear on the fold of the collar that will cause fraying.”

Here’s your soundtrack, suggested by my editor, whose most obvious bias is toward tuba music. — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.