AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Faced with a deadlock in negotiations for a new two-year state budget, Maine lawmakers have resorted to borrowing tactics from Congress to try and hash out a deal as Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration chastises lawmakers for inaction.
LePage has suggested the state follow Congress in using continuous resolutions to fund state government amid gridlock, and his administration criticized legislative leaders this week for taking the unprecedented step of leaving budget negotiations to a “super committee” of six lawmakers. LePage met behind closed-doors with leaders Friday, and aligned himself with House Republicans at odds with Democrats and Senate Republicans over an impasse on education funding.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Republican President Michael Thibodeau set up the group to try and get a budget in place before July 1 to avoid a government shutdown - one which could close state parks and halt marine patrol officers beginning on the busy Fourth of July weekend.
One GOP member, Sen. Roger Katz said the “giants of both of our parties” - such as former U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Bill Cohen, both Republicans, and George Mitchell, a Democrat - fought hard for partisan positions.
“But they understood that after the end of it, there was a need to compromise to keep government running,” Katz said.
A spokeswoman for LePage questioned the effort.
“It’s a very bizarre attempt to break through legislative dysfunction,” spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said on a radio show Thursday. “You cannot have four, six members determine a budget.”
LePage has used his final two-year, $6.8 billion budget proposal for initiatives he’s long fought for, including eliminating state government positions and moving toward a flat income tax. But through months of hearings, lawmakers have rejected or been divided on some initiatives - like education reform bills - that LePage and House Republicans are still demanding.
Gideon called Friday’s meeting with the governor “unproductive” and said LePage listed “unreasonable” demands after months of little involvement. She said LePage in past budget rounds has taken his full 10 days to review and veto a budget, and that now, LePage would need to act more quickly on a deal to avert a government shutdown.
Any deal will need two-thirds support in both chambers - meaning buy-in from House Republicans. Currently, Gideon says that caucus isn’t willing to compromise with House and Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette said lawmakers still have two weeks. He called Friday’s conversation “frank” and said he looks forward to more meetings with legislative leaders and the LePage administration.
In November, voters approved an additional 3-percent surtax on high-earners expected to net over $300 million for public K-12 education. House Republicans want the “anti-business” tax gone, and Senate Republicans proposed nixing the tax in a just-over-$7 billion plan boosting education funding by $100 million.
Gideon proposed rolling back the surtax and recently agreed to $200 million in “sustainable” education funding. Gideon said Democrats and Senate Republicans face a $60 million revenue gap, and “tough questions” about potential cuts.
House Republicans offered $30 million in education funding and a total budget just below $7 billion - a benchmark LePage endorsed and that any deal reached by Democrats and Senate Republicans will likely exceed.
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