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Budget Negotiations Boil Over in Early Morning Talks

AUGUSTA, Maine — Meeting into the early morning, members of the Legislature's budget writing Appropriations Committee split on several key issues, including General Assistance, more drug enforcement agents and taxes.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says his caucus will not support the budget as it is shaping up.

"These are deal breakers as far as I am concerned," he says. "You know we ran on and we think this governor won election on welfare reform. He also has opened up the conversation on income tax cuts and we are not going to see either in this budget."

Fredette says House Republicans will support their own version of the budget if the Appropriations Committee does not reconsider several of its votes.

"There is going to be a very clear case in what is going to be presented as the majority budget versus what we will present as the House Republican budget," he says.

One of the issues that split the committee was additional drug enforcement agents.

Gov. Paul LePage requested seven new agents, but the majority of the panel voted to fund only four.

With the drug problems in the state, that's not enough, says Rep. Jeff Timberlake, a Republican from Turner.

"I couldn't possibly understand for a second why we would want to cut back on seven investigative drug agents," he says. He was joined by the three other GOP House members on the committee.

Rep. Aaron Frey, a Bangor Democrat, argued other committee actions had freed up $200,000 in federal funds that could be used for additional agents beyond the four approved by nine members of the panel, if the Department of Public Safety agrees.

"While we are securing money for four agents today, I hope the committee remembers that we have also set it up that an additional $200,000 will be available," he says.

Sen. Jim Hamper, a Republican from Oxford co-chairs the committee, says none of the votes that have been taken are final and hopes a compromise that will get support of two-thirds on the House and Senate can still be crafted.

"The budget is not final yet," he says. "Until the final vote is taken, things can move."

House Democratic spokeswoman Jodi Quintero said Monday that Democrats have agreed to include a constitutional amendment proposal designed to make it harder for lawmakers to raise income taxes in the future. In exchange, Democrats are seeking more money for K-12 and higher education and more property tax relief through the homestead program, among other things.

Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau told the Portland Press Herald that the constitutional amendment would be "monumental in moving the state forward.""

But Fredette said his caucus will not support a budget that doesn't include income tax cuts or Gov. Paul LePage's proposed welfare changes.

A budget must be in place by June 30.

"See if we can't fashion a budget that can garner the votes that we need in the House and Senate," says Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, House co-chair of the committee. "Failure for us is not an option."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.