LePage’s return to budget talks hasn’t broken impasse, but he predicts no shutdown

While the Legislature winnows its list of bills left to deal with this year, talks on the budget are totally stalled.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the same conflicts exist now as have hamstrung budget negotiations during the past few weeks, and that the situation might have become worse since he and other legislative leaders met Friday with Gov. Paul LePage.

Jackson said Friday’s meeting with LePage was constructive in nature but didn’t close the gap that separates Democrats and Senate Republicans from LePage and House Republicans.  LePage was more blunt Tuesday on WVOM, saying the meeting was “not very good.”

But the Republican governor said that he believes pressure to eliminate the education surcharge passed by voters in 2016 is mounting to the point that the path away from a government shutdown is becoming clearer.

“I’m willing to sit down and talk together, but give us something so that in the next biennium we’re not facing the same problem,” said LePage. “With all the commotion on the 3 percent rising up and people starting to turn against it pretty hard, I don’t think we’ll shut government down.”

That belies the fact that there are still many sticking points between most of the Legislature and the governor. LePage continued his insistence that any new education funding come with reforms such as a statewide teacher contract and school administration consolidation.

On Tuesday, he also raised old ideas that have been rejected by the Legislature before, such as tightening a tree growth tax break and taxing property owned by land trusts.

Jackson also said LePage has taken issue with some of the funding sources that have been proposed by Senate Republicans to invest more than $100 million in public schools in lieu of the 3 percent surtax created last year by voter referendum.

Despite his hopeful tack, LePage said he is preparing for the possibility of a shutdown. That will begin this morning in a meeting with his Cabinet. If a shutdown occurs, he’ll have wide latitude to decide which services are essential and which aren’t.

“We’re going to start preparing,” he said. “I’m going to ask the commissioners what are the most vital services to provide in each agency.” — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • A bill aimed at increasing testing for toxic chemicals in Maine well water survived a LePage veto on Monday, but a shield law for people who report overdoses didn’t. Seven of  the governor’s eight most recent vetoes were upheld in the House and Senate on Monday, but both chambers easily defeated LePage’s veto of a bill from Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, to place a new fee on well water tests at a state laboratory to increase testing for naturally occurring chemicals in that water and outreach on the issue. But his veto of another Vachon bill to shield people who report drug overdoses from criminal prosecution and repeal criminal penalties for carrying hypodermic needles was sustained by 59 Republicans and Rep. Jennifer Dechant, D-Bath, in the House. Other vetoes upheld on Monday included proposals to create a tourism fund for small communities and to make motorists yield to transit buses. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage signed a conservative proposal to incentivize comparison shopping for health care procedures into law on Monday. The governor held a low-key signing ceremony for a bill sponsored by Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, that will require Maine health insurance carriers to offer certain plans in which enrollees are incentivized to shop across state providers for comparable procedures in four categories: physical and occupational therapy, radiology and imaging, lab services and infusion therapy. Under the bill, people who have health savings accounts will be able to be credited for choosing low-cost procedures — gleaned from a Maine Health Data Organization database — in the form of cash payments, premium reductions, gift cards and other ways. In a statement, Whittemore said the bill will “create constructive competition” among providers. It was lobbied by the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and passed without roll-call votes in both legislative chambers. — Michael Shepherd
  • The minimum wage referendum’s treatment of tipped wages survived on Monday — but it’s looking like it will only live through the summer. On Tuesday, 12 Democrats in the Maine Senate blocked a bill from Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, to roll back a phase-out of the tipped minimum wage that passed as part of a minimum wage increase in a 2016 referendum, with Katz’s bill failing by one vote to get the two-thirds approval needed for immediate enactment. But the bill still has huge support and should pass the Legislature as a regular bill this week and be signed by Gov. Paul LePage. Either way, it’s set to take effect at the beginning of 2018. — Michael Shepherd
  • Attorney General Janet Mills is part of a coalition investigating opioid manufacturers for their role in a national crisis. The Democrat’s office said in a Monday statement that she’s part of a bipartisan group of top state attorneys who are investigating the role that opioid manufacturers “may have played in creating or prolonging this epidemic.” The statement was vague and didn’t reveal targets of the investigation or whether it’s a criminal or civil investigation. It’s unclear how many states are involved, but Reuters reported last week that Massachusetts, Texas, Illinois and Pennsylvania are leading the effort with a majority of states represented. Maine averaged more than one drug overdose death per day in 2016, fueled by a rise in deaths from fentanyl and heroin. — Michael Shepherd

Clarification: This item has been changed to reflect that the tip credit change would take effect in 2018.

Today in A-town

It’s the penultimate day of the (scheduled) legislative session, but it’s not looking like the Legislature will adjourn on Wednesday because of that pesky budget. Aside from that, the House and Senate are in good shape to finish their business on the floors by tomorrow.

So, today’s calendars in the chamber actually aren’t all that busy: Fifteen items are held up in disagreements between the chambers — with most of them tracking to die except for the tip credit bill — and another 11 awaiting votes with divided reports from legislative committees. More is likely to come to each chamber as they move through their business today.

The budget is also holding up the 100 or so bills that have already passed, but are awaiting funding on the Special Appropriations Table. Legislators on the budget-writing committee will have to kill many of them for lack of funding, but they can’t know which ones they’ll fund without knowing how much money they’ll have. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Scholar’s query

The Daily Brief supports smart people who try to make themselves smarter. In that vein, we share this request by Matthew McLaughlin, a Bangor native who is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

He wants to talk to people in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District who voted for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, then voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, either as part of a focus group or one-on-one.

You can email him at mainemediaresearch@gmail.com. He won’t pay you, but he will provide food. Here’s your soundtrack. — Robert Long

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.