- Associated Press - Friday, June 30, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A partial state government shutdown began early Saturday in Maine after lawmakers failed to meet a deadline for a new state budget while House Republicans revealed they were working with GOP Gov. Paul LePage on a secret, alternative plan.

A proposed two-year, $7.1 billion budget wasn’t approved Friday night after resistance from House Republicans, whose concerns include $162 million allotted for increased education spending. The shutdown is Maine’s first in a quarter-century.

LePage this week vowed he would not sign any budget that did not include his overall income tax cut proposals. But Democrats and Senate Republicans said averting a government shutdown that could hurt state employees and the economy was more important than passing a perfect budget.

“We are all held hostage here, not just us, but every person in the state of Maine who is affected by the shutdown,” said Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Gideon described the LePage’s alternative budget plan as a list of demands that would require at least a day of work. The Legislature early Saturday voted to once again allow a new six-member committee to try to hash out a budget deal in the coming days.

She said she left a late night meeting at LePage’s home in response to his “aggressive behavior” toward her. LePage’s office didn’t immediately comment.

LePage has for years been in conflict with lawmakers he calls too beholden to special interest groups and over-spending. On Friday, he once again accused legislators of waiting until the last minute to approve a budget and “trying to put a gun to the governor’s head.”

He also criticized the closed-door negotiations and accused lawmakers of rushing into a bad compromise “so they can go home for the Fourth of July.”

“This budget that they have has no prayer, and if they’re hell-bent on bringing this budget down, then we will shut down at midnight tonight, and we’ll talk to them in 10 days,” he told reporters, referring to the period during which he is allowed to review the budget bill.

Legislative leaders in past days met behind closed doors to hammer out a deal after months of hearings resulted in multiple budgets rather than a single proposal.

A six-member committee late Thursday voted 5-1 on a two-year, $7.1 billion budget proposal that includes $162 million in additional public K-12 classroom spending and an increase in the lodging tax starting in October.

The budget proposal achieves Republicans’ priority of removing the voter-approved 3 percent income surtax on high earners to fund schools, estimated to bring in $320 billion for schools.

But the governor has said that’s not enough.

In his original $6.8 billion budget proposal, LePage proposed delaying the surtax for a year. For 2018, he proposed including the 3 percent surtax in the new tax rates of 5.75 percent and 6.15 percent, down from the current rates of 5.8 percent, 6.75 percent and 7.15 percent.

He also proposed a lodging tax increase in his budget, which included a pathway to a flat income tax of 5.75 percent by 2020.

The exact substance of the governor’s budget demands was unknown early Saturday.

Republican Rep. Tom Winsor, a member of the Legislature’s appropriations committee, said that it was around $7 billion and included LePage-supported initiatives - like a voluntary pilot program to allow school districts to participate in a statewide teacher contract - that had been rejected.

During the last shutdown, in 1991, a time of bleak revenues with no immediate sign of recovery, state employees flooded into the State House as citizens seeking services found shuttered motor vehicle offices, long waits to apply for food stamps and closed veterans’ cemeteries.

This year, revenues are healthy, with unemployment at a historic low. The union representing state employees said it’s ready to sue if workers aren’t paid on time in the coming weeks, while the nonprofit advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners sued to ensure the state continues to pay benefits to low-income Mainers even if there’s a shutdown.

The governor said his administration was taking steps to protect health and safety. State parks, correctional facilities and psychiatric hospitals would remain open. Law enforcement and first responders would be on the job. Bureau of motor vehicle offices would close, while at least one courthouse would be open in each county.

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