At crunch time, Maine’s budget talks move to back rooms and dark corners

“PLEASE NOTE: The committee will likely continue to break for caucus during, or in lieu of, scheduled budget work sessions.”

Those words appeared Sunday in a summary of the work on the biennial state budget that is left to be done by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, and they mean the budget crunch is upon us. The committee has circulated notices that it will convene at 3 p.m. every day this week but whether that will be in public, on-mic session or behind closed doors is a guessing game.

Lobbyists and reporters will spend untold hours milling around the committee room and listening to the crackling online live stream. At some point, the committee will return to the horseshoe and take a group of votes on budget initiatives that have been vetted in public but decided on in backroom negotiations that for all intents and purposes are private.

The votes could come at any hour. In 2015, the budget deal was struck at 11 p.m. In 2013, the committee deliberated all night before convening at 5:30 a.m. and taking its final, momentous votes.

The old saying goes that laws and sausage are two things you never want to see made. My opinion is that the only thing worse is watching laws made at the end of a 22-hour workday.

Lawmakers from both parties have been saying that finding common ground on this year’s budget will be as difficult as any budget in recent memory, but I’ve heard that same sentiment during negotiations on every budget in recent memory. Despite fat state revenues this year, there are chasms between the parties on a number of issues, probably the most serious of which is education funding and in particular, the 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 that was approved at referendum last year.

If you have the interest, patience, a keen eye for spreadsheets and a lot of free time on your hands, you can follow along. All the information you need to do that is posted here, with the unvoted initiatives broken out. If your head is starting to hurt just thinking about that, don’t worry. The Bangor Daily News and other State House media will have you covered. Here’s our soundtrack.

Need a review? Here’s a BDN hot take on where the friction points are. Gov. Paul LePage’s original budget proposal gives the Legislature a starting point. The document has been changing ever since and by the end will contain mostly shadows of the governor’s priorities as lawmakers reach compromises or battle for their own positions. Democrats have been aggressive this year about pushing back on the budget proposals and have unveiled an alternative set of fiscal priorities they call the Opportunity Agenda.

They’ve been touting it in town hall meetings all over Maine and last week, House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport launched a full-on assault of social service changes supported by LePage and many Republicans when she proposed legislation that would spend $150 million in federal block grants to create an enhance a number of programs for low-income Mainers.

Senate Democrats kicked off the week with a news release early this morning that repeated what they’ve been saying for months: They won’t support a budget that “ignores the will of the voters” — that’s a reference to the surtax — doesn’t “fully fund public schools” or gives “tax cuts to the rich.”

In 2015, the Appropriations Committee process broke down and members of the legislative leadership team took over, negotiating the biggest items outside the public’s view springing an 11th-hour compromise on their colleagues. There was considerable uproar around that process, which one would think leaders would try to avoid this year. We’ll see.

As always happens toward the end of budget negotiations, you’re going to start hearing “government shutdown” thrown around. Without a new budget in place, state government would have no money to operate as of July 1. LePage has tried to defuse the shutdown talks by suggesting that the state could pay its bills with continuing resolutions, the way Congress does, but that has never happened in Maine, which unlike the federal government has a balanced-budget mandate in its Constitution.

You’ll hear lots of doomsday deadlines for the Legislature to vote out a budget and give LePage time to sign or veto it (our money is squarely on a veto). Despite the stated sense of urgency, you can probably bank on the fact that it will be the second or third week of June before a resolution will be in the offing. Why? Because that’s just the way it goes in Maine. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The committee calendar is light on Monday, but things will ramp up quickly with the House of Representatives and Senate coming in on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as we’re just under a month from the scheduled end of the legislative session.

Reading list

Legislators: Relax, ride your bike

The Bicycle Coalition of Maine is looking to get legislators out of the State House on Tuesday morning for a four-mile bike ride or a one-mile walk along the Kennebec River Rail Trail, which runs between Augusta and Gardiner.

“While bicycle and pedestrian policy may come up during the ride or walk,” a news release said, “the focus is on the moment and rediscovering how much fun it is to be outside on a bicycle or walking.”

Maybe getting Democrats and Republicans together for a bike ride could take some of the heat out of budget talks. Maybe they’d start racing. Either way, let’s hope they blow off some steam, since they have to see a lot of each other between now and June’s end. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

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.