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Republicans, Democrats ‘Very Far Apart’ in State Budget Negotiations

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
Maine Lawmakers discuss business in the House Chamber in January.

Scores of Democrats filled the staircase in the State House Hall of Flags today as their leaders outlined a proposed budget package. They laid out the major goals of the plan — but not many of the details — in this gambit for crafting a two-year state budget.

Democrats are focusing on lowering the property tax, but retaining the 3 percent surtax on higher-income households to pay boost school funding. Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal, meanwhile, aims to lower the income tax, yet still increase funding for local schools.

Republicans say that the surtax, approved by voters this past fall, is killing small businesses and must go. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport says the parties are also far apart on their approach to other aspects of education. He says Republicans want to look at effectiveness of programs, not just how much money is being allocated to schools.

“No one is here because they want to shut down state government or people want to go into July or August or anything else like that,” he says, referring to rumors that some lawmakers are willing to block the budget to force a partial state government shutdown. “But people are going to have to become more reasonable in their positions because we are very far apart at this point.”

Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash says his party has at least put out a framework for what it would like to accomplish in the budget. He says Republicans should do the same so that real budget negotiations can get underway.

“We haven’t seen anything from them, they keep talking about this 3 percent surcharge, but they want to fully fund education. Well where is the — what do they have?” he says.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau says Senate Republicans do want to see the surcharge eliminated. He says they have been working to identify possible areas of agreement to reach that goal and still provide additional funding for schools. And he’s optimistic that a budget deal can be worked out.

Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public
Maine Public
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Freeport Democrat, unveils the party's budget plan at a State House news conference Thursday.

“We’re going to work together. We are going to get this worked out. But apparently this was some sort of therapy that they had to go through,” he says. “Hopefully they feel better now that they have gone through that process.”

But all agree that time is growing short. The Legislature is scheduled to end its work on June 21, but it has been a long time since the statutory deadline for completing their work has actually been met. A budget will have to be in place when the new fiscal year starts July 1 to avoid a partial shutdown of state government.

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon also believes that a budget will be worked out, but acknowledges that it will be very difficult.

“This is our proposal, and as we all in this room know, it takes four caucuses to tango and create a budget that withstands the two-thirds number we have to get to,” she says.

That is, the two-thirds vote is needed to override an expected veto from LePage. The Appropriations Committee, which is charged with crafting the state budget, has so far not taken up the controversial items that are expected to require the most intense negotiations.