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Politics

House Republicans Block Bid to Stop Maine Government Shutdown

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Steve Mistler
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Maine Public
Democratic Reps. John Martin, Erik Jorgensen and Aaron Frey (from left) watch the voting board as the House of Representatives votes on a last-ditch budget proposal to avoid a government shutdown.

A last-ditch effort by the Legislature to pass an emergency budget and avoid a government shutdown failed late Friday after 60 House Republicans voted to block the measure.

 

The House voted 88-60 to pass the $7.1 billion two-year spending plan, 13 votes shy of the two-thirds needed to pass it as an emergency.

 

The Republican controlled Senate passed the budget 33-1. But the overwhelming support by the GOP Senate did not persuade enough House Republicans, many of whom have aligned themselves with Gov. Paul LePage, who said a shutdown is necessary "for the future of Maine."

 

Prior to the decisive House vote -- and after a final-hour meeting between LePage and the four caucus leaders -- House Speaker Sara Gideon told lawmakers that she was in "amazement, disbelief and true sorrow" that shutdown was unavoidable.

 

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Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon in the halls of the State House Saturday, with Rep. Drew Gattine, right, a Democrat from Westbrook.

The failure to enact the budget means the state will experience its first shutdown since 1991. Funding for state government ran out at midnight on Friday. Legislative leaders will now reconvene to consider how to get a budget passed.

 

View a list of state services affected by the shutdown.

 

Both the governor and House Republicans are expected to bear the brunt of the blame for the shutdown -- and the wrath of unemployed state workers. It's unclear if the shutdown’s anticipated effects and political pressure will force them to compromise, or if Democrats and Senate Republicans will work to craft a plan that can win the support of House Republicans, and by extension, LePage.

 

In the interim, thousands of state workers will be out of work and the others deemed as essential employees by the governor will work without pay until a new budget is in place. Additionally only half of the state's court houses will remain open and motorists seeking to renew their driver’s licenses will be able to do so only if they qualify for the online service.

 

The governor released an emergency order declaring that first responders, the Marine Patrol, Warden Service and State Police will continue to work. LePage also kept open the state parks, citing the fear of vandalism if they were shuttered.

 

The budget has not been fought over cuts. Maine is one of about a dozen states with a revenue surplus. Nonetheless, the shutdown appeared imminent for several weeks as legislative leaders struggled to find a compromise over education funding, specifically how to increase it and by how much.

 

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Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Maine Senate Mike Thibodeau Friday urges colleagues to approve a budget compromise aimed at averting a shutdown of state government.

On Thursday, House Speaker Sara Gideon and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau announced that they had reached a deal that they hoped would break the stalemate.

 

The deal included two key concessions from each side: For Democrats, the full repeal of a 3 percent surcharge on wealthy Mainers that voters approved in November to fund education. For Republicans, a 1.5 percent increase in the lodging tax to help replace the revenue lost by eliminating the surcharge.

 

The surcharge is current law and is projected to raise over $300 million in additional education funding. The compromise reached Thursday increases education funding by $162 million.

 

Some Democrats saw surrender of the surcharge as violating the will of the voters -- and their activist base that put the issue before voters in November. However, in several floor speeches, Democrats said they feared a government shutdown and its devastating effects on the state even worse.

 

"Mr. President you can tell from my comments that I hate this budget, I hate this process, I hate how education members were left out, I hate how appropriations members were left out and I hate how I was left out," said Senate minority leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. "But I hate the idea of government shutdown even more."

 

He added, "As powerful as my hate is for this budget, I cannot allow that hate to cloud my vision. I cannot have a shutdown and the pain and suffering it will put on Maine families on my conscience."

 

House Republicans said the budget was fiscally irresponsible because it increased education spending without adding the policy changes that LePage wanted. They also decried what they viewed as the lack of an income tax cut despite the repeal of the 3 percent surcharge.

 

Democrats argued that the budget gave LePage the House GOP exactly what the governor proposed in his budget earlier this year: An income tax cut, a lodging tax increase and elimination of the 3 percent surcharge.

 

A shutdown appeared likely even if the budget was able to get two-thirds support. LePage held a press conference Friday afternoon saying he planned to not act on the budget for the full 10 days afforded to him by law.

 

“If they're hell-bent on bringing this budget down, then we will shutdown at midnight tonight and we'll talk to him in 10 days,” he said.

 

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Credit Mal Leary / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Gov. Paul LePage, at an Augusta news conference Friday, rejected the legislative leaders' budget agreement and said state government would shut down.

 

Three hours before the shutdown, lawmakers learned that the governor was working on another budget bill. However, details were not available. About 90 minutes before the shutdown deadline, LePage summoned the four caucus leaders to the Blaine House.

 

Addressing the House before the final vote and after the meeting with LePage, Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said the governor's new proposal wasn't a bill, but a list of demands. She said she was open to some of them. She said LePage became angry when she didn't agree to all of them and stormed out of the room saying, "Shut her down!"

 

A list of the governor's demands later circulated in the state house. A repeal of the voter approved ranked choice voting law was among them, as was elimination of increase in the lodging tax that was part of the now failed budget compromise.

 

Dozens of state workers lined the State House hallway and chanted "Shame!" as Republican House members left the chamber after the final vote. The protests are expected to continue throughout the shutdown, beginning with a rally at Capitol Park on Saturday.