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Maine Lawmakers Still Deadlocked on Budget as Shutdown Deadline Nears

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
Lawmakers discuss business in the House Chamber as the Maine Legislature reconvenes Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, at the State House in Augusta.

Legislative leaders continue to negotiate in private in hopes of reaching an agreement on the state's two-year budget and avoiding a government shutdown. Leaders of all four caucuses met Monday morning at the State House after a weekend of private talks.

There's still no sign of agreement, but leaders are hoping to reach a compromise on education funding — the key sticking point in the budget.

Most of the state's two-year spending plan has been agreed to, but lawmakers are stuck on education funding.

State government will shut down if lawmakers don't enact a budget by the end of the month. Gov. Paul LePage also has 10 days to sign, veto or allow a budget bill to become law without his signature. But the governor could be blamed for a government shutdown if he takes the full 10 days.

A special committee setup to negotiate the final details of the budget could meet later Monday.

Maine Public political reporter Steve Mistler and Maine Things Considered host Nora Flaherty spoke about those negotiations.

Flaherty: I feel like we’ve been reporting the same for weeks: Legislative leaders have been meeting behind closed doors and yet they still don’t have an agreement that could get enough support in the Legislature to pass a budget and avoid a shutdown. Has anything changed?

Mistler: In terms of movement on the negotiations, the answer is no. The only thing that has changed is the time left to strike a deal.

Basically, the Legislature has until Friday to pass a budget, send it to Gov. Paul LePage and hope that he’ll either sign it or veto it right away. He needs to one of those two things immediately to avoid a shutdown, because funding for the government runs out July 1 — Saturday.

We have no assurances that the governor will act right away and, by law, he doesn’t have to. He has 10 days to act on any bill, including the budget. If he takes even one of those 10 days, we will have a partial government shutdown.

And key thing here is that lawmakers haven’t even been able draft a budget bill, much less vote on one.

Flaherty: And the key sticking point is education funding?

Mistler: That’s right. There are basically four parties in this negotiation: Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, House Democrats and House Republicans, the latter of which have aligned themselves with the governor.

The key stumbling block is education funding. What’s different about this negotiation though, is that voters passed a referendum last year that increased public education funding by adding a 3 percent surcharge on wealthy Mainers. Republicans and the governor have vowed to eliminate it. And here’s the thing: Democrats seem willing to do that, but only if the budget raises other revenue — say, the lodging tax or broadening the sales tax — to replace what would have been raised by the surcharge.

Senate Republicans have come forward with additional education spending, but so far have been resistant to any tax changes that would ensure that the funding is sustained.

Meanwhile, House Republicans and the governor have asked to tack on education reforms that Democrats just aren’t ready to go along with.

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon was asked what it would take to break the impasse.

“That’s a great question, and that’s really the question that Sen. Jackson and I posed today when we came forward with more changes and more compromise, and ideas that were soundly rejected. I would ask you to go ask our counterparts down the hall that exact same question,” she said.

Flaherty: It sounds like Democrats feel like they’re making all the concessions and that it’s Republicans that are refusing to budge?

Mistler: I think that’s the House Democrats’ view of House Republicans. I think they believe they’re closer with the Senate Republicans in terms of education spending, although not on revenue sources.

Then you have Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, who has been very critical of the Senate Republican proposal. Jackson said he was very frustrated that Republicans were taking such a hard line on eliminating the the education surcharge.

“People went out and worked for that and voted for it. Even though they say you can get those signatures in Bangor and you can get them in Portland, I don’t care. People all the way up in Fort Kent voted for these referendums. And now we’re turning that back, like it doesn’t matter. We’ll the people’s vote matters,” he said. “If that wasn’t the case we wouldn’t have Donald Trump as president.”

Flaherty: Jackson sounds pretty frustrated there.

Mistler: I think everyone is frustrated at this point, and not terribly optimistic about resolving this before the end of the week. Think about it: These four people have been meeting for over two weeks and they’re basically at the same place they were when they started negotiating.

Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau was asked about the lack of progress.

“We’ve got a lot of people working hard trying to find some common ground. I know there are differences of opinion even at this late stage. People are passionate about their passions. I hoping they wont allow that passion to get in between them and some compromise we all need to find,” he said.

Flaherty: So Thibodeau seems to making an appeal for people to abandon entrenched positions, yet even at this late hour, there are still some in those positions. What do you think will happen next?

Mistler: I think what you’re going to see in the next day or so is that House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats are going to put some kind of budget proposal on the floor. They’ll vote on it probably on Thursday knowing they may not have the two-thirds support they need to pass it as an emergency. If that happens, there are two possible outcomes: the budget fails and they start over again. Or maybe the threat and pressure of a shutdown will force those in entrenched positions to vote for it.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.
Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.