- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Gov. Paul LePage urged lawmakers to replenish Maine’s rainy day fund on Tuesday while they pushed forward in crafting a supplemental budget without help from the Republican governor who has refused to introduce one this year.

LePage, who vetoed the state budget days before a potential government shutdown last year because it included tax increases, has said lawmakers are on their own when it comes to filling a roughly $90 million hole in the $6.3 billion, two-year budget that ends June 30, 2015.

On Tuesday, the budget-writing committee began four days of public hearings on dozens of ideas - from increasing the cigarette tax to eliminating the sales tax exemption on purchases made by private colleges - as they move ahead in writing a supplemental budget on their own.

“We faced a situation that was unprecedented,” said Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo, of Lewiston, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “The governor has ducked his responsibility with regards to the supplemental budget … We’re in unchartered water here.”

But while he won’t participate in the supplemental budget-writing process, LePage said Tuesday that he will introduce a bill to put $21 million back in the rainy day fund, a reserve of money used in the event of budget shortfalls and emergencies. LePage said the Legislature’s decision to dip into the fund to pay for revenue sharing to the state’s cities and towns, leaving the reserve at about $38 million, will downgrade Maine’s credit rating and force the state to pay tens of millions of dollars in additional interest on bonds.

“This is not a slush fund for liberal politicians in an election year to avoid making tough decisions,” he said.

His administration couldn’t provide details for how his measure would be paid for, but said the ideas it’s examining are “not controversial.” If the measure isn’t approved, LePage said, he will keep his promise to not release bonds until the rainy day fund reaches $60 million. It would be fiscally irresponsible, otherwise, he says.

With no supplemental budget proposal from LePage, Rep. Kathleen Chase of Wells, the ranking GOP House member on the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers felt the best way to press forward was to lay out all Democratic and Republican ideas out for consideration.

The proposals include boosting the cigarette tax to $3.50 from $2, redirecting funds from a scholarship fund for University of Maine System students to the state and putting a six-month cap on drugs used to treat opioid addiction.

Lawmakers’ supplemental budget and LePage’s bill face challenges in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which is quickly approaching its adjournment date next month. LePage says he’ll reject any budget that includes tax increases and lawmakers are skeptical of the cuts or savings the governor will find to put $21 million back in the rainy day fund.

LePage said he suspects lawmakers will try to pass a supplemental budget for this fiscal year and call it quits when it comes to the budget for next year, pushing that onto the next Legislature after the election.

“That’s irresponsible. Frankly I’ll go one step further, it’s incompetent,” he said.

But Democratic leaders dismissed the governor’s claim.

“We’re not going to adjourn without a 2015 budget,” said Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, of Allagash. “We’re going to do the hard work we were sent here for, and we would ask that the governor finally join us in helping make this happen.”

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