LePage might not have a budget to veto Friday if lawmakers fail to cut a deal today

It’s the day of reckoning in Augusta.

We’ve been giving you updates on the state budget process day after day and ticking off a number of deadlines by which lawmakers must act or cause a government shutdown. Today marks perhaps the hardest deadline yet.

The six-member conference committee formed by legislative leaders two weeks ago has to reach a deal and vote it out today — or perhaps early Thursday — in order to give legislative staff time to draft a revised budget bill that the House and Senate can vote by the end of the week and sent to Gov. Paul LePage. To take effect on Saturday, it must pass both chambers with two-thirds majorities.

The real deadline looms at midnight Saturday, when the current fiscal year ends and the next one begins with or without state government in operation. To avoid a shutdown, everything needs to fall into place perfectly and efficiently, though there is little indication that opposing factions in the Legislature are poised to reach the needed compromise.

Even if they do, we’re within the 10-days window that LePage is given in the Maine Constitution to act on it — which means there could be a shutdown whatever the Legislature does. The governor predicted a shutdown yesterday in a radio interview.

This is very, very late in June for there to be no budget deal, though there have been a couple of 11th-hour saves in the past. According to information provided by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, budget negotiations have dragged into late June several times since 1967, when state government shut down for one day until the budget was in place on July 1.

In 1991, the fight was over reforms to the state workers compensation insurance system. State government was out for 16 days until a deal was struck on July 17. Democrats tried to force through a one-year budget but then-Gov. John McKernan, a Republican, vetoed it on July 1.

The next two budgets after that were also doozies. They were enacted on June 30 and June 29 in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Since then, the latest negotiations have gone was June 17 two years ago. LePage vetoed that budget but the Legislature had time to return to Augusta and override the veto.

As has been reported by the Bangor Daily News and others, a state shutdown wreaks havoc across Maine in many ways. In 1991, there were at times thousands of protesters in and around the State House as lawmakers negotiated. There was a camp or protesters across the street in Capitol Park and the rhetoric was furious, including chants of “we want [McKernan’s] head.”

“At first it may have been a little bit of adrenaline rush, or kind of fun thing to do, but that didn’t last very long. They got very serious and very angry,” John Hale, a former BDN State House reporter who covered the 1991 shutdown, told Kassadi Moore, a BDN intern, by phone Monday. “By the end of it, they were kind of a menace to the safety of the Legislature, and they were yelling, and some of them had air horns … They were blowing them just as the legislators went by, and at least one legislator claimed he lost part of his hearing because of that. Others ones would spit on the legislators. It was not a pretty scene at all.”

This year’s State House protests have been modest until Tuesday, when the hallway between the House and Senate was clogged with sign-waving Mainers. Despite being told by building security officers not to chant, they often did. If there’s anything good about it, it’s that so far they are not demanding anyone’s head.

“Respect our votes” is the mantra, though many of the protesters said they were urged to attend Tuesday’s rally by the Maine People’s Alliance, which is one of the groups that championed the 3 percent surcharge for education that is at the center of this year’s disagreement.

All the ingredients are present for a repeat of 1991. Canopies have already been set up at Capitol Park. There is no obvious path toward success for negotiations. Democrats, Republicans and the governor have all drawn hard lines in the granite. July 2017 is looking like another doozy. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Gov. Paul LePage is in Washington, D.C. today to talk energy with President Donald Trump. LePage’s office hasn’t released details of the trip, but we can read about some of them in Politico. Trump has proclaimed this week “Energy Week” and he’s set to host LePage and fellow Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska along with local and tribal leaders for a discussion on energy. He left yesterday and is expected back on Thursday. The governor told WVOM yesterday that he’ll be monitoring Maine’s budget situation from afar. — Michael Shepherd
  • A bill that could bring new jobs to Aroostook County is flying through the Legislature. A bill introduced just last week to appropriation $1.5 million over the next two years to the Loring Development Authority of Maine for the refurbishment of buildings and equipment was approved 119-14 in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. The bill would take the money from the Maine Technology Institute. Officials at the authority, which oversees redevelopment of the former Limestone Air Force Base, have signed a binding letter of intent with an undisclosed aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul company. Truckloads of equipment have already begun arriving at Loring. The bill, which was submitted by LePage, is sponsored by Rep. Harold Stewart, R-Presque Isle, and is co-sponsored by a number of senators and representatives from northern Maine. It faces further votes in both chambers. The Loring Commerce Centre already hosts about 20 businesses employing roughly 800 people. — Christopher Cousins
  • U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s bill to promote family logging businesses has been wrapped into a larger forestry bill. Poliquin presented his Future Logging Careers Act earlier this year to allow Mainers as young as 16 years old to work in family logging operations, as long as they are properly supervised. Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, sees the bill as a way to help family businesses and to fill job vacancies across the forestry sector. Current law mandates that workers be at least 18 before they can handle most logging equipment. The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine estimate that there are at least 7,000 logging jobs in Maine and that virtually all of them are in family-owned businesses. Poliquin’s bill has been swept into the larger Resilient Federal Forests Act, which seeks to reduce the risk of wildfires and improve the health of federal forests. That act won bipartisan approval Tuesday from the House Committee on Natural Resources. — Christopher Cousins
  • State Treasurer Terry Hayes announced Tuesday that the state has returned more than $18 million in unclaimed property to Mainers in fiscal year 2017. That breaks the 2016 record of $16.1 million, according to a news release. The unclaimed property results from incorrect addresses, misspelled names and dormant accounts that are submitted to the treasurer’s office by Maine businesses. More than $25 million in unclaimed property was identified in fiscal year 2017, which ends Friday. At present, there is still more than $232 million in the unclaimed property database. Some of that could be yours to claim, which you can do easily and quickly by searching your name (or those of potentially very grateful friends and family members) by clicking here. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Today looks like it will be just about the end of the line for 2017’s session in the House of Representatives and Senate, which have plans to finish most, if not all, business today — except, of course, that sticky wicket that is the budget.
Most importantly, the six-member budget committee plans to meet in the afternoon, but no time was set as of the Daily Brief’s 9 a.m. deadline. It’s unclear what they’ll do.

But they essentially have two options — vote out a budget to send to the Legislature or extend their work, which is scheduled to end today. Neither is a great option since little consensus on well-documented sticking points and there’s little time to punt to tomorrow.

The biggest thing left to decide on the floors is the fate of ranked-choice voting, which Maine’s high court has ruled unconstitutional. The Democratic-led House kept it alive yesterday when it voted to keep the law for primary and congressional elections.

The Senate has voted to scrap the law entirely. Both chambers may consider it again on Wednesday. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

‘At least somebody’s having fun’

Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, brought some levity to the House floor Tuesday, on a day when a shutdown loomed over the Legislature, by announcing that “it seems that my housecat has been entertaining boyfriends and I have a litter of kittens.”

“So, if anyone in three or four weeks is in the market for a nice, new friend, be sure and contact me,” he said, prompting laughter and applause in the chamber.

“It might be out of order for me to suggest that at least somebody’s having fun,” retorted a budget-weary Gideon.

Here’s his soundtrack. And here’s hers— 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.