About that $6.8 billion budget Maine needs to keep state government running …

It’s a light day in Augusta after a week of collegial debates and votes in the House and Senate, who held hours-long sessions for three consecutive days. But lawmakers have been working and will work this weekend on the two-year budget, even though there’s no deal in sight.

The Legislature has picked up the pace of plowing through bills and has begun to pile some up on Gov. Paul LePage’s desk for consideration, but as always there’s a gigantic elephant in the room: all compasses point to the $6.8 billion state budget bill.

You may not have heard much recently about it but lawmakers, especially those on the Appropriations Committee, have been focused on little else. With statutory adjournment a month away and the day the lack of a budget agreement will shut down government in just six weeks, the tension is building.

House and Senate Republicans caucused at the State House on Monday evening, which sounds like progress given how the GOP in those two groups has split on past state budget bills. Reporters weren’t allowed in, but we’ve heard from Republicans who don’t want to be named that no deal is in the offing.

As we’ve said before, the stonewall standing between Democrats, Republicans and a budget compromise is Question 2 from last year’s ballot, which put a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 for the benefit of public schools. Republicans and Democrats have dug in their heels on that and neither seems likely to budge.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, queried about the prospect of a budget deal in the hallway on Thursday, said, “I don’t know. Maybe if the Republicans start listening to the will of the voters.”

The struggle, for the most part, won’t happen in public. Most of the time they are not in session in the House and Senate, members of the Appropriations Committee will be slogging through negotiations and periodically convening to vote through bits of the budget. It’ll be the easy stuff first and the hardest stuff at the very end.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a budget committee member, said on Thursday morning that Appropriations members plan to meet behind closed doors on Sunday before taking public votes on certain budget elements on Monday.

Weekend sessions of the Appropriations Committee are a sign that urgency is setting in, as the panel aims for a consensus budget that will have to pass with two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate to be in place on July 1.

Hubbell said the expectation has been for the committee to finish most budget work by Memorial Day weekend and he said that’s still possible, despite little agreement on education funding.

“This is the point where it starts to get hard and we see what we can do,” he said.

For calendar watchers, the previous Appropriations Committee voted out its budget on June 6, 2015, but only after members realized that they were not going to be able to pass it unanimously.

The House and Senate passed a final version 10 days later. In 2013, the Legislature passed a budget on June 13, five days after the Appropriations Committee wrapped up a 40-hour negotiating marathon with a unanimous budget vote. In both cases, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed those spending plans, only to have his vetoes overridden.

Outside the State House, it will be another beautiful, normal and hopefully stress-free spring weekend in Maine. Here’s your soundtrack. And here’s theirs. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Collins: Special counsel and Senate committee have different aims in Russia probe. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee was briefed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Thursday after Rosenstein selected former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate connections between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the committee, emerged to release a statement saying Rosenstein made clear that Mueller’s charge is to “determine whether or not there were any violations of criminal law,” while the committee’s investigation is focused “counter-intelligence aspects” that could lead to sanctions against Russia. She called it “important that both investigations continue to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.” — Michael Shepherd
  • A bill authorizing a new Gorham connector will become law after a LePage veto went down hard in the Legislature on Thursday. The Senate voted unanimously to override the governor’s veto of the bill, which allows the Maine Turnpike Authority to build a toll-supported, 5-mile connector between South Portland and Gorham that could cost up to $150 million. It’s aimed at relieving rush-hour traffic on state routes 114 and 22 that the authority has called “among the worst in Maine.” LePage vetoed the bill because he didn’t want it supported by tolls, but the authority has said the Maine Department of Transportation can’t afford to do it. The House overrode the veto easily on Wednesday. — Michael Shepherd
  • Poliquin, Pingree make another push to cut red tape for urchin processors. On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree of Maine announced their second bill in two years to end redundant federal inspections of sea urchins and sea cucumbers before they’re exported from the U.S., which the representatives say leads to the echinoderms sitting in warehouses and putting them at risk of spoiling. Their bill passed the House of Representatives last year, but it didn’t make it through the Senate. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The Legislature’s out until Tuesday and there’s almost nothing scheduled at the State House on Friday. The Health and Human Services Committee is the only committee in and it’s set for a public hearing on one bill and work sessions on six others.

That includes one bill from Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, that would strengthen a state panel charged with examining infant deaths after the Bangor Daily News reported in December that the panel hadn’t met in two years as the state’s infant mortality rate has risen.

The committee overseeing Maine’s voter-approved marijuana legalization is working, but they’ll be at the Maine Impaired Driving Summit in Bangor, where marijuana is front and center on the agenda. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Robots taking tea at the Blaine House

The Baxter Academy for Technology and Science’s robotics team, just four years after the public charter school was formed in Maine, has shot straight to the top, or nearly so. The school’s “Outliers” team went to the Granite State and Greater Boston district events as the top seed and then became the first Maine robotics team to ever play in the Einstein World Competition. Students on the team put in more than 500 hours to build and program its robot.

“To ranks as the top team in New England and a world leader in only the third year of competition and fourth year of your school’s existence is truly remarkable,” said Gov. LePage in a written statement.

The team will travel to the Blaine House this morning for tea with the governor. According to a news release from the school, LePage has pledged to match donations made to the team through the end of the school year up to $25,000. You can donate to the school through this form; just make sure you route your donation to the Outliers to trigger LePage’s matching funds.

The team is sponsored by a range of Maine businesses but trips to world championships — like last month’s trip to St. Louis — cost money and the team is operating on a shoestring.

The Outliers’ robot, Tony (named after Tony Stark/Iron Man) specializes in delivering crucial gears from the ground to an airship.

If LePage could build a robot, we’re not sure what it would do. Pinch reporters as they pass by his office? Automatically veto all bills? Send us your best ideas. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

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.