Start the shutdown ticker if Maine lawmakers don’t cut budget deal Thursday

The special panel of six lawmakers trying to bridge their own gaps on Maine’s two-year budget is setting a deadline of noon today to finish their work, but there was no agreement on the sticking point — education funding — by the time they adjourned late Wednesday.

There was some movement, with Democrats and Senate Republicans ceding a bit on past school funding demands. But House Republicans were still holding out for policy changes that may be difficult to build consensus on in the 11th hour of negotiations.

There will be government shutdown if there’s no budget by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The Legislature has been working under a Friday deadline to pass a budget in both chambers, which takes two-thirds majorities. To get it to the floor in time, the Legislature’s budget office has said it needs to begin drafting the document around noon today.

On Wednesday night, Democrats retreated on education funding, saying they would accept a $200 million increase in state aid to schools over the last two-year budget after they made an offer of roughly $250 million last week.

That would bite into the voter-approved surtax on high earners, expected to generate more than $300 million over two year, but Democrats have come down because Republicans have been united in saying they want to repeal the surtax.

Senate Republicans countered by restating an earlier offer of $110 million more in education funding over the last budget cycle without the surtax. However, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said that there could be $65 million more available for schools or other needs.

Charitably, you could say that Democrats and Senate Republicans are close on school funding — $200 million vs. $175 million. But House Republicans aren’t playing that game.

Their only member of the panel, Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, said his caucus was reticent to increase spending over current levels of just under $6.9 billion — which both Senate Republicans and Democrats would — and ticked off a list of school reforms that his fellow members want to see, from addressing “operational overhead” to experimenting with a statewide teacher contract to reducing truancy.

Democrats voted against a bill to implement a statewide teacher contract in a May committee vote. Some of what Republicans have sought around education reform was contained in a 45-page proposal presented Wednesday by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, including expanding the administration’s authority to incentivize school regionalization and consolidation, which LePage has begun this year on his own.

But LePage isn’t likely to be happy: Spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett called Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, “the $7 billion man” on WGAN on Thursday and Katz, a longtime LePage adversary, presented other ideas that find more than $50 million in savings and transfers in the governor’s proposed budget, including axing a $500,000 legal fund for LePage.

More granular disagreements remain. Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told the special panel on Wednesday that four leaders on his committee worked this week to reduce 255 disagreements over other budget line items to 16.

In those cases, three caucuses agree, but one was withholding support. He didn’t disclose all the outstanding lines items, but he told the Bangor Daily News that six of those lines have to do with LePage’s proposed transfers from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which uses tobacco settlement money to fund wellness programs.

He said he would “neither confirm nor deny” that House Republicans were the holdout caucus. But whether you think they’re right or wrong, they are in this process.

It will only take two House members and two senators to move the budget out of the committee, but House Republicans can withhold a two-thirds majority on the floor, so their movement or lack thereof over the next 24 hours will be crucial. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • Maine’s deadline to implement Real ID has been extended. The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday that it has given Maine until Oct. 10 of this year to comply with the federal Real ID Act. In April, the Legislature and LePage enacted a bill that put Maine on track to implementing changes in Real ID standards, such as background checks for state employees and having birth certificates, Social Security numbers and information about certain medical conditions kept in a state-owned database. Implementation will take a period of years. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, called the extension a “big relief for thousands of Mainers who rely on their licenses and state IDs to access federal buildings and military installations.” — Christopher Cousins
  • After a congressman was shot in Virginia, three Republican lawmakers wrote LePage asking to carry concealed handguns in the State House. The requests from Reps. Matthew Harrington of Sanford, Richard Cebra of Naples and Lester Ordway of Standish came after the Wednesday shooting of U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, at a baseball practice in Virginia. State law and Maine Department of Public Safety rules bar people other than police from carrying weapons on the State House complex, but Cebra’s letter asks LePage to deputize lawmakers who have concealed-handgun permits to allow them to carry. The entrance to the State House is guarded by armed Capitol Police and visitors must go through metal detectors to access the upper floors. — Michael Shepherd
  • King urges continued funding for Northern Border Regional Commission. In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, urged $15 million in new funding and recommended that it direct the funding to competitive grants to bolster the forest-products industry. The commission, which has disbursed more than $5 million to rural Maine projects since its formation in the 2008 Farm Bill, is among 62 agencies and programs proposed for elimination by President Donald Trump. The commission serves 36 rural counties in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The Legislature mostly hit “pause” Wednesday, tabling just about every measure that required a roll-call vote, while several lawmakers on the appropriations and budget conference committees worked on a biennial budget compromise. They’ll have to hit “play” soon, and possibly “fast forward” if they’re to finish this year’s agenda by the June 21 statutory adjournment date.

The aforementioned conference committee is trying to find a budget compromise by noon today in order to give the Legislature’s number crunchers and bill writers time to produce a document for the full Legislature to vote up or down by late Friday afternoon, but no time was set for the meeting as of 9 a.m. and both chambers were planning to be in at 10 a.m.

But the budget is far from the only matter that must be resolved.  The House is scheduled to consider a joint resolution that calls for a national constitutional convention to consider a constitutional amendment to reverse the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which has unleashed torrents of hard-to-track independent campaign spending Two-thirds of states would have to call for a convention to make it happen.

The House could also consider a resolve that calls for an amendment to the Maine Constitution regarding the citizen-initiated petition process for referendums. The proposal would require signature gatherers to collect a level of signatures in each congressional district equal to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in each district.

On the Senate calendar are some bills regarding various aspects of the minimum wage, many of which come to the full Legislature with recommendation split along partisan lines, which probably means they won’t move forward. The Senate has 53 items on its unfinished business list, any or none of which could come up today.

At some point today, the judiciary and marijuana legalization implementation committees are due to meet but given the fluid nature the State House schedule these days, your guess is good as or better than ours. Here’s your soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Reading list

There’s no way humans could have survived dinosaurs

One of the other Bangor Daily News email newsletters out of Portland, The Express, concluded Wednesday with an interesting tidbit about humankind’s very existence.

If the asteroid that scientists believe wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago had struck our planet 30 seconds later, predator dinosaurs might have survived and chomped enough mammals to stop the evolution of humans. Ken Capron, an alert BDN newsletter reader and frequent commenter, threw cold water on that theory.

“It is highly likely that our tiny ancestors would have realized that dino eggs were really good (with triceratops bacon),” wrote Capron. “They would have caused the eventual extinction of dinosaurs much like the early inhabitants of the Americas did away with large mammals — for food.”

Maybe, but I have my doubts. Battles between small and large opponents happens to be a well-worn Daily Brief topic, though in the past the fight has been between ducks and horses.

Imagine you’re a caveman, or even a monkey-like creature millions of years before the cavemen. You wake up, go outside to enjoy your coffee and the paper and there are all these hungry, meat-eating monsters running around with teeth as long as your forearm. All you have to defend yourself is a stick or a rolled-up newspaper because you haven’t gotten around to inventing stone or iron weapons. You lock eyes with a T-Rex for a fateful moment before it comes bounding toward you. Your coffee cup shatters on the ground.

That’s about as far as I can go imagining the -co-existence of humans and dinosaurs. Here’s your 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.