All eyes now on legislative Republicans in Maine’s budget battle

Good morning from Augusta, where Thursday provided the best look we’ve seen so far at the divisions on Maine’s next two-year budget, which is due in 84 days and needs two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Now, the focus is on legislative Republicans, who are largely going to have to work out the differences between Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal and Democrats’ wish list of priorities if Maine is going to have a budget by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

We got LePage’s budget proposal in January, largely mirroring his plan from two years ago that got dismantled by the Legislature. The composition of the current Legislature didn’t change much in the 2016 election, so this budget has been doomed to a similar fate.

Yesterday, we got a partial budget proposal from Democrats that jumps off of Maine’s current budget to use $265 million in projected new revenue to reduce property taxes and fund social services programs, including $5 million to fight opiate addiction.

But perhaps the biggest budget sticking point for Republicans is the voter-approved 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000. Democrats’ plan relies on that to increase education funding by $370 million, getting the state close to funding 55 percent of education costs, a threshold that Maine has never met.

Republicans want it gone, and they spoke with one voice on that yesterday, with leaders in the LePage-aligned House caucus and the more moderate Senate saying they won’t budge on it. But they didn’t speak with one voice about how they would deal with replacing it.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who leads a moderate caucus that has often bucked LePage, said he heard voters’ concerns about education funding, saying “we want to put significant resources into public education” without specifying a certain funding percentage.

But when asked about the referendum, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said “I don’t think the issue is simply more money to education,” but also about education reform, noting some of LePage’s education proposals, including a statewide teacher contract and school consolidation.

Republicans mostly aligned, but it looks like it’ll take some work to get on the same page. But they’re in control of the budget process, at least for now. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • LePage hits back at Angus King after the senator’s vote to filibuster President Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee. King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was on the losing side of a Senate vote that eliminated the 60-vote threshold to confirm Neil Gorsuch, a Colorado appeals court and conservative darling. LePage hit King for the vote, referencing the four Democrats who voted to advance the nomination and saying King has “proven he sides with the extreme liberals in the Democratic Party and against common sense governing.” LePage has teased a potential run against King for nearly two years. State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, kicked off his own bid for King’s seat this week. — Michael Shepherd
  • Maine’s top child welfare official is leaving his job. Jim Martin, director of the Office of Child and Family Services within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, “has accepted a position outside of state government,” DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards wrote to the BDN in an email. Martin has served in the post since December 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile. He previously served as director of DHHS’ Office of Aging and Disability Services. The Office of Child and Family Services is DHHS’ second largest division, with a state general fund budget of $114.4 million in the last fiscal year and 660 employees. It oversees programs such as child protective services, the state’s child care subsidy program, foster care, domestic violence prevention and children’s behavioral health services. Edwards said DHHS “will make an announcement at a future date about his replacement.” — Matthew Stone
  • Real ID compliance takes a step forward in Maine. A bill that would put Maine on the path to compliance with federal Real ID rules passed Thursday in the Senate on a vote of 31-4. LD 306 would repeal a law enacted in 2005 that prohibited Maine from taking steps to conform, such as implementing the use of facial recognition software, fingerprinting Bureau of Motor Vehicle employees and inserting security markings on Maine-issued identification cards. Gov. Paul LePage has urged swift passage of the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former Maine secretary of state. The fiscal note on the bill predicts it will cost some $4.6 million over the next four years. Voting against the bill were Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, and Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland. The bill faces more votes in the House and Senate, which are likely next week. — Christopher Cousins
  • Pingree introduces bill on behalf of victims of online sexual harassment. In partnership with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Pingree will introduce the Service Member and Veterans’ Empowerment and Support Act. The bill would ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs provides care and counseling to veterans who have been victims of sexual harassment online. Victims of cyber sexual harassment are not currently eligible for those services. The bill would also make it easier for victims to report crimes. — Christopher Cousins
  • Anti-drug crusader says revenues from pot sales should fund addiction prevention and treatment. Scott Gagnon, chairman of Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, pushed back against Democrats on Thursday for their proposal to use sales tax revenues from recreational marijuana sales to fund new investments in infrastructure and social services projects. “While it is positive to see some monies invested in battling the opioid crisis, the reality is that if we don’t address the prevention and treatment of marijuana addiction, the addiction crisis won’t be solved. It will simply evolve,” said Gagnon in a written statement. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

  • Opioid task force to hold initial meeting on Friday. The new “Task Force to Address the Opioid Crisis in the State,” to be chaired by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Newport, and Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, will hold its first meeting at the State House at 10 a.m. today. The panel is set to get reviews of Maine’s opiate crisis, treatment options, pending legislative proposals and treatment programs in other states.
  • Is your drinking water safe? That’s the question that will be the subject of a public hearing hosted by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee today and a press conference where parents, lawmakers, doctors and others will discuss their support of LD 454, An Act to Ensure Safe Drinking Water for All Maine Families. Among other things, the bill requires the state to develop a program for testing residential drinking water wells. The fiscal note predicts that the program could be supported by fees of $10 per water sample test. There are several other bills aimed at ensuring clean drinking water also being introduced today.
  • Also, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will hold morning and afternoon work sessions on several bills looking to strengthen laws against domestic violence. — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins

Reading list

RIP, Merchant of Venom

Today we bid adieu to Don Rickles, a pioneer in the art of making us laugh at others’ expense. Here are a few of his best one-liners, which we hope will make you chuckle on a Friday morning after a long week in Maine politics.

  • On Frank Sinatra: “When you enter a room, you have to kiss his ring. I don’t mind, but he has it in his back pocket.”
  • On Johnny Carson: “When he did his monologues, it was always about the public and what was happening, right up before airtime, … Hope and Humor.”
  • On David Letterman: “It’s sweet of you, Dave. I know your busy schedule of going to the bank and trying to figure out what the hell you do.”
  • On Jimmy Kimmel: “I met your son. … He’s a wonderful young kid. And he was smiling because he knows one day he’s going to come into a lot of money.”
  • On Paul Shaffer: “You’re an awfully nice guy, but there’s a new thing out there called food.”
  • On Robin Williams (after seeing his arms): “I’ve never met an ape.”
  • On Robert De Niro: “He’s one of the great actors of our time. You ask him.”
  • On Bob Hope: “Bob Hope couldn’t be here tonight. He’s looking for a war.”
  • On Clint Eastwood: “Clint’s idea of a good time is sitting on a pickup truck watching his dog bark.”

Want to see Don in the flesh? Here’s today’s soundtrack, with Sinatra to boot. As a bonus, we’ll let him sing you out. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.