LePage re-enters Maine’s budget fight as shutdown fears grow

Five months and 10 days after Gov. Paul LePage floated a two-year budget proposal largely ignored by the Legislature, he has muscled his way back into their stalled and dysfunctional budget process with the state as close as it’s been to a shutdown during his tenure.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Friday morning that he and three other legislative leaders planned to meet with the Republican governor at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the budget, with the next step in the process resting largely on what they hear from LePage.

It comes a day after an unproductive Thursday meeting of the six-person committee tasked with closing the Legislature’s impasse on education funding, where House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, raised the specter of a shutdown to blast LePage-aligned House Republicans.

“When all these things fail,” she told WCSH, referring to services that could be stopped, “there will be one party who didn’t come to the table to make sure that state government kept functioning.”

While Democrats and Senate Republicans have hedged on initial budget demands during the past week, House Republicans led by Minority Leader Ken Fredette of Newport have held out to establish a $6.9 billion upper limit on spending and add conservative education reforms to the mix.

Fredette also told reporters that LePage would now have to be involved in the budget process, even though the last two budgets in 2013 and 2015 have been crafted with the expectation of a LePage veto.

As the special budget committee was walking away in frustration Thursday evening, LePage released a video through the Maine Republican Party, saying “politicians in Augusta are using the possibility of a state shutdown to pass an irresponsible budget,” while claiming that “sensible Republican House members are asking for a better deal.”

For now, the delay in crafting a budget may have given LePage more power over the final product. That added power derives more from timing than a veto threat, as an emergency budget bill must pass both chambers with two-thirds majorities, which would be enough to override a veto.

On Thursday, the Legislature stumbled past a deadline to vote a budget out of the committee, which means any final budget that gets two-thirds approval in both chambers is now virtually assured to get to LePage’s desk with less than 10 days — the period he can hold a bill before signing or vetoing it — before a shutdown that would come if there is no budget by July 1.

Fredette said the governor is willing to work to avoid that, while Thibodeau said Friday that he’s encouraged that LePage is willing to meet and the impasses can be bridge. The Senate leader said “there has to be a deal” and everyone must be more flexible the later the process runs.

“It doesn’t matter whether the deal is done today, tomorrow, next week, June 30 or the middle of July,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how much chaos is involved in the process.” — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • LePage went 1-1 on veto overrides Thursday, killing a bill aimed at reducing truancy and keeping alive another to allow corrections officers to carry an opiate overdose antidote. With help from two Democrats, House Republicans sustained LePage’s veto of a bill from Assistant Senate Minority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, that aimed to reduce truancy among elementary school students. But in a 138-3 vote, the House overwhelmingly overrode his veto of a bill from Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, to allow corrections officers in county jails to administer naloxone, a drug that can reverse potentially fatal opiate overdoses. The Senate is scheduled to take up that veto today.  — Michael Shepherd
  • A State House rally on behalf of people with disabilities and their caregivers is slated for today. Advocates for Mainers with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be in the Hall of Flags this morning to advocate for more funding for workers and organizations who care for those people. Specifically, they are rallying on behalf of LD 967, which calls for the state to increase MaineCare reimbursement rates for certain populations by 10 percent. However, the cost is staggering: More than $26 million in each year of the biennium, which would draw down some $58 million a year in federal funds. This is a debate that’s been simmering all session at the State House but these advocates are attempting to strike while the iron is hot — while the budget situation is fluid — though whether they’ll be heard above the din remains to be seen. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Today’s State House preview is more like today and tomorrow in A-town because all the ingredients are present for House and Senate sessions that could last well into the night and possibly into Saturday. Marathon public sessions like that have been common in past years but with the exception of one Appropriations Committee hearing that went until nearly midnight two weeks ago and a few long public hearings, this Legislature has operated mostly in the daytime.

With the budget committee standing in limbo, it’s hard to predict what will happen today, though both the House and Senate have plenty of bills to debate on their calendars. We expect sessions to begin sometime this morning, though probably without some legislative leaders and key committee members present as they presumably put together some kind of budget bill to vote up or down. Lawmakers are most definitely distracted. For part of Thursday afternoon, some of the roll calls on bills in the House had 29 members absent.

When on-the-fly budget negotiations like this happen, there’s enormous pressure on the Office of Fiscal and Program Review and the revisor’s office, who crunch the numbers and write the bill language, respectively. That can often lead to hours of waiting until the documents are ready for the Legislature to vote on them. During those periods in the past, I’ve seen everything from late-night touch football games outside and yoga sessions on the Senate floor to everyone walking around with scowls because the tension is so thick.

Whatever happens, the Bangor Daily News will have you covered, so stay tuned. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Let’s just listen to some tunes

There are lots of ways to look at the budget situation in Augusta today. It’s easy to cast blame on lawmakers of whichever party for letting the debate last this long and bringing the specter of a government shutdown upon us. However, let’s not forget the intense pressure on them. With that in mind, it’s a good morning to crank some good tunes.

This is the obvious soundtrack for the governor and legislative leaders but let’s not forget that they wanted to be here. Here’s their soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

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.