Returning to Augusta reminds budget panel members how deeply they disagree

Good morning from Augusta, where even though there was incremental progress Wednesday on the Legislature’s unresolved business, lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee disbanded on a sour note.

Wednesday’s meeting has been anticipated for weeks and offered the possibility that a political impasse over slowing the minimum wage  on one hand and funding startup costs for Medicaid expansion on the other — with a number of other unrelated but widely supported bills caught in the middle — would finally break.

It didn’t. Here’s their soundtrack.

Legislative leaders said they were in negotiations for hours — and indeed, the budget committee didn’t convene until 9 p.m., a full seven hours after its scheduled time — but it was basically to no avail. In the end, the committee forwarded three bills for which they have been under the most withering pressure from advocates: two bills to maintain raises for direct care workers and a bill to fund $12.2 million of the state’s share of county jail costs.

Those bills would provide funding for the 2019 fiscal year — which begins July 1 — and if enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage, would fulfill promises that were made last year during a three-day government shutdown. There are at least another 17 bills, most of which most everyone supports and many of them related to fighting drug addiction, that were not addressed.

Also still hanging in limbo are a number of other major issues. They included a tax conformity package, a bond package proposal that includes crucial maintenance funding for roads and bridges, an education funding bill, and a technical fix-it bill that would avert a major cash flow problem with the Maine Clean Election Fund. More than 130 other bills have been approved by the Legislature but not funded, but you can probably write those off at this point.

“I cannot overstate the amount of work that is left to do,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who co-chairs the budget committee. But it was Gattine and the Democrats on the committee who angered Republicans in the final moments of Wednesday night’s meeting, and it was over procedure. Republicans had hoped to dispense the three bills that were merged on Wednesday, but Democrats voted on party lines to keep the county jail funding bill alive — ostensibly for the possibility of further increasing funding at a later date. Given years of rancorous debate over jail funding, there is little change that a funding bump would make it through Republicans and LePage, but it could become a bargaining chip.

“Well, that’s a heck of a way to do a negotiation,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, after the microphones were shut off.

That doesn’t bode well for the possibility for further compromise. It’s possible that the full Legislature could come back and approve just those three bills, but there’s agreement that doing so would be reckless. As it stands now, the Appropriations Committee has no additional meeting scheduled and there is no sign that legislative leaders are ready to call a special session.

In short, after Wednesday’s marathon negotiation, there was only a shade of progress. Where does it go from here? No one knows, and there’s another soundtrack for you.

Angus King kicks off campaign

The independent senator will do campaign roll-out events in Brunswick and Bangor today. U.S. Sen. Angus King has stayed off the campaign trail in the run-up to his 2018 re-election bid so far, but that’s going to change with formal events today. He’ll give addresses at Brunswick Station at 10 a.m. and at the Bangor Waterfront near Sea Dog Brewing Co. at 2 p.m. where his campaign said in a news release that he will “outline his vision for Maine.”

King has voted like a conservative Democrat during his first Senate term, which the former two-term governor came out of political retirement to win easily in 2012. His 2018 opponents — state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Democrat Zak Ringelstein of Yarmouth — have an uphill battle.

While Maine’s junior senator is rolling out his campaign formally today, it has been revved up for a while: King’s campaign account had $2.3 million in it as of March 31, which was more than 18 times the total that Brakey and Ringelstein had left.

Watchdog committee to take testimony on child welfare report

The Legislature’s watchdog committee will hold a public hearing on a report that faulted the state in one of two recent child deaths. Advocates will go before the Government Oversight Committee at 9 a.m. today to discuss the report released last week on the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in February and 4-year-old Kendall Chick in December. Kennedy was allegedly killed by her parents and Chick by her grandfather’s partner.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which is controlled by the committee, wrote a report faulting the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child and Family Services for “poor job performance” and “inadequate supervision” in one of the cases and said the risk of child abuse and neglect “was not necessarily evident” in the other.

This is only the beginning of the office’s dive into Maine’s child welfare system. It will also produce a more comprehensive report on the system that is expected to be released next year.

Reading list

  • Addiction treatment providers in Maine worry that new Maine DHHS payment rules will force them to close. The department plans to shift from signing annual contracts that give providers predictable cash flow to a system in which providers are reimbursed for specific services after those services are rendered. “By an administrative switch of a pen, they are gutting the system of treatment in the middle of an opioid crisis,” said Malory Otteson Shaughnessy, executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services. A DHHS spokeswoman said the change to a fee-for-service payment structure “prioritizes the client, bringing them a greater quality of care through a more patient-driven and consumer-centric approach.” The changes take effect July 1. Meanwhile, Maine continues to rank high nationally in percentage of opioid-related overdose deaths, with more than one person per day dying in the state as a result of overdoses.
  • The Maine Ethics Commission penalized a gubernatorial candidate for shoddy campaign finance reporting. At a hearing Wednesday in Augusta, Diane Russell, one of seven Democrats running for governor, was fined $300 for filing incomplete reports. The former state representative from Portland has had past run-ins with the commission over her political action committee and a 2016 Maine Senate campaign. Her campaign has been saddled with debt that ballooned to $77,000 as of late April and equaled more than she raised to that point with just over $400 left in her campaign account.
  • An independent candidate for governor wants to campaign at the polls on June 12, even though she is not on the ballot. State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who is running for governor as an independent, has sued Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, because his staff reportedly told her that she had to abide by the same polling-place buffer law as candidates on the ballot. She wants her campaign staff to be able to talk up her candidacy and collect $5 qualifying contributions that would allow her to receive more money from the Maine Clean Election Fund. Hayes has qualified for the November ballot.

Show us your teeth

Today is National Smile Day. Smiling supposedly has myriad health benefits, including lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems.

We’re not in the mood. It seems like some kind of subtle campaign reminding people to go to the dentist. But here is your soundtrack anyway. And just to help you turn that frown upside down, here’s a bonus soundtrack. — Robert Long

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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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.