When does state government shutdown talk become more than a budget negotiating ploy?

“Nothing much has changed” doesn’t make for a very good lead on a news story but when it comes to the state budget, we’ve been here before.

A week after the Legislature’s budget committee gave up on trying to reach bipartisan compromise on the $6.8 billion state spending plan for the next two years, there is little indication that much progress has been made.

All four caucus leaders met for much of Thursday, but they acknowledged there has been little movement toward agreement. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that “we have a lot of good people working hard to make sure we are successful.”

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so goes the saying, and fiscal hell is where state government could be headed unless legislative leaders break down barriers that separate the parties, and in some cases, Senate and House leaders from the same party. Two years ago, Thibodeau and other legislative leaders took the reins from a stalemated Appropriations Committee and dragged a budget deal across the finish line on June 16, ensuring enough time to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the bill and his line item vetoes before July 1.

The goal is for this Legislature — or at least two-thirds of each chamber — to enact a budget compromise in time to give LePage the 10 days, excluding Sundays, afforded him in the Maine Constitution to act on the budget or let it become law without his signature. By our count, that means the Legislature has to act by next Friday at the latest.

Dates, more than vote counts in the House and Senate, matter most in this scenario, because each chamber already must approve the spending plan with two-thirds majorities to enact it as an emergency measure, the only way it can be in place by July 1.

Allowing enough time for House and Senate votes and for legislative staffers to write budgets and possibly fashion amendments, there needs to be an agreement by early next week or we could be watching the budget fight stretch into July, with state government shut down.

It’s possible that the Legislature could send the budget to LePage in the third or fourth week of June and leave him less than the statutory 10-day window to act, which would be an interesting bit of strategy if there is to be a government shutdown anyway. LePage has said for months that he will veto the budget — and virtually everyone believes him — but he doesn’t have to take the full 10 days to do it. He could dig in his heels and wait into July to act — no doubt blaming the Legislature, somewhat credibly, for its slow action — but that would allow lawmakers to place the blame for a state shutdown on the executive branch.

The governor has already offered a retort to that claim, suggesting since early this year that state government could continue operating via short-term continuing budget resolutions — as Congress does — through the summer to allow lawmakers to craft a budget based more on good policy than deadline pressures. But that’s never happened before in Maine, and continuing resolutions could run afoul of the constitutional provision mandating that a balanced budget be in place.

The looming threat of a government shutdown has become a biennial specter at the State House, but it has only happened once — in 1991 amid a conflict over Republican Gov. John McKernan’s push to reform the workers compensation system. Voters punished legislators from both parties the following year and in 1994 elected Angus King, an independent, as governor.

Legislative leaders say they plan to continue negotiations at the State House throughout the weekend. Despite recent offers from both sides — more than $100 million in new education money offered by Senate Republicans and a partial rollback of the 3 percent education surtax by House Democrats — there is little indication that negotiations are closer to success than they ever have been.

Both of those offers have caused blowback. Democrats are taking withering criticism from the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Education Association, and Republicans are taking fire from within — namely the House Republican caucus — which has been making louder and louder noises about the overall level of spending in the budget as it exists right now.

Add to that a new wrinkle: The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this week demanded repayment of $51 million from the state because of the 2013 decertification of Riverview Psychiatric Center. LePage has called on lawmakers to appropriate the money in the budget bill, which throws a $51 million wrench into already complicated political machinations.

We have a real mess on our hands, folks. But, you already knew that. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

Susan Collins got former FBI director James Comey to say that he leaked a memo from a meeting with President Donald Trump to the press, which she called inappropriate. The Maine Republican’s questioning prompted one of the blockbuster admissions in the Thursday hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, when Comey said after his May firing, he had a friend leak a memo he wrote documenting a Trump meeting to The New York Times, hoping it would prompt the appointment of a special counsel to investigate ties to Russia — which it did. Trump allies quickly used the revelation to paint Comey as a leaker. Afterward, Collins told MSNBC that “I don’t think it was appropriate,” saying “it qualifies as a leak,” but she said Comey was candid when he spoke before the committee. — Michael Shepherd

Bruce Poliquin voted with fellow Republicans on Thursday to roll back a set of bank regulations championed by former President Barack Obama. The Republican-backed Financial CHOICE Act targets the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, one of the former Democratic president’s signature laws, and would exempt banks from certain regulations and weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created under the law. Small Maine banks and credit unions have backed the bill, saying Dodd-Frank over-regulates them. Poliquin, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, said in a statement that the law will “benefit Maine and help our small businesses.” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, voted against the bill, saying while she supports making sure small banks aren’t over-regulated, the bill “mostly benefits Wall Street firms while placing everyone else at risk.” The bill faces an uncertain path to passage in the Senate. — Michael Shepherd

A Maine legislative committee couldn’t agree on a recommended path for ranked-choice voting. The state’s first-in-the-nation voting system approved by voters last year but deemed unconstitutional by Maine’s high court last month got a muddled report in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Thursday. After the court’s opinion, Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth, proposed a constitutional amendment to allow it for state general elections and Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, proposed a bill to kill the system. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee divided three ways on it on Thursday. Five Democrats and Rep. Owen Casas, I-Rockport, endorsed implementing it for primaries and federal elections in 2018 and delaying it for state general elections pending an amendment. Six Republicans voted to endorse Mason’s proposal. Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, wants to repeal the unconstitutional pieces of the law and delay the rest until after the 2019 election. Those recommendations now go to the full Legislature for consideration, but the system is in jeopardy. — Michael Shepherd

Three Maine school consolidation projects split $1.5 million in grants issued by the LePage administration on Thursday, with the expectation that it will help them save $7.3 million. It’s another round of awards in the Maine Department of Education’s EMBRACE Initiative, which aims to woo school districts to consolidate administrative or educational services. In this round, the department approved projects to start a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education outreach program in the Skowhegan area, establish a therapeutic educational setting program for K-12 students in Oxford and Franklin counties and merge administrative functions at two charter schools in Fairfield and Cornville and other non-profit entities. The LePage administration made an initial $2.7 million in awards in April. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The most interesting event in Augusta today may be at the Maine Ethics Commission, which will consider a staff recommendation to probe the finances of the controversial campaign behind a 2017 referendum for a new York County casino, whose backers may have violated Maine law for late disclosure of $4.2 million in loans. Watch the BDN for more coverage.

The House and Senate are meeting  on a Friday for the first time this session. The stream of bills coming through is relentless. On the House calendar, which is shorter than it has been all week but which could be lengthened significantly by last-minute supplements, are a few interesting ones. Ensuring the success of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, both in terms of providing financial aid to low-income families and moving recipients into the workforce, is the subject of one bill near the top of today’s House agenda. There will probably be some debate but the bill’s fate may have been sealed Thursday in the Senate, where Republicans voted to kill it. Also up today is a bill to require health insurance companies to cover medical marijuana. There wasn’t much support for it at the committee level but regardless, there are probably some folks in business suits watching that bill closely.

On the Senate calendar, as with the House, there a number of dead bills walking because there is disagreement between the two chambers. Another bill that has to do with access to newly legalized marijuana is up for debate. It would ban the purchase of retail marijuana with TANF cash, which is a concept it’s hard to imagine anyone voting against. Indeed, the House went unanimously against it on Wednesday. A bill to arm Maine’s forest rangers on the job, which received a strong endorsement in the House on Thursday, is up for a vote today in the Senate. If that bill passes, the question becomes how to fund it, regardless of how many votes it attracts. A somewhat significant chunk of the Senate’s day will likely be spent on a handful of social services bills. If you want to listen in, click here. Otherwise, watch the BDN for coverage. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Top Democrat solves trophy mystery, but is he innocent?

The Daily Brief will take credit for this one: The same day we brought you the story of the fishing tournament trophy stolen from the office of House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, it was “found” and returned by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

But is Jackson innocent? Portland Press Herald reporter Kevin Miller spotted it near his desk during yesterday’s Senate session, which prompted Democratic operative Amy Cookson to say that she thought a ransom note given to Gideon’s office on Wednesday — which seemed to frame Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport — was in Jackson’s handwriting.

So, she questioned Jackson spokesman Mario Moretto, whose official line was that “someone dropped it off in our office today while our administrative assistant was away.”

“I only hope the scofflaw is caught,” he said.

We’re relieved the mystery was solved, but we’re skeptical. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

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.