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Politics

‘I Can Barely Contain My Fury’ — Budget Negotiations Tense On 2nd Day Of Shutdown

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Steve Mistler
/
Maine Public
Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, take questions from the special budget committee during Sunday's meeting that the State House.

Two days after state government shut down, Maine legislative leaders Sunday endorsed a new budget deal by a vote of  5 - 1.  The lone holdout was Rep. Tom Winsor, a Republican from Norway.

The deal is expected to come up for a vote Monday.  The plan maintains an increase in the lodging tax, opposed by Gov. Paul LePage, but delays its implementation from October to Nov. 1.

 

The political standoff that created Maine’s first government shutdown in 27 years has fostered bad blood and distrust among the legislative leaders now charged with ending it.

Tempers flared during Sunday’s meeting of the special committee attempting to draft a new two-year budget proposal that can get two-thirds support in the Legislature and, potentially, the signature of Gov. Paul LePage.

Members of the committee grilled House Republican leader Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, who presented a new proposal representing what he says are the priorities of his caucus and the governor. Committee members have routinely questioned whether he is bargaining in good faith, citing his role in forcing the shutdown and his expanding list of demands that are unrelated to the issue that originally created the budget stalemate: a 3 percent surcharge on wealthy Mainers passed by voters last fall and an increase in education funding.

While the GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House supported a compromise that resolved that dispute, Fredette and 60 House Republicans blocked it, forcing the shutdown. He has since come forward with a proposal that includes a list of requests that he says could win the support of his caucus and, possibly, the governor.

Sunday’s meeting centered on the financial effect of the proposal, but lawmakers quickly discovered that it neither balanced nor included other initiatives not presented Saturday.

Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth noted that there was little monetary difference between the new GOP proposal and the compromise rejected on Friday.

“So the chief executive [LePage] and the House Republicans have shut down state government over less than one half of 1 percent, and I’m trying to figure out, when are we going to land?” she said. “When is this going to stop? How long are we going to do this?”

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport said she was equally frustrated.

“We all know that we are in Day Two of the state shutdown. And I have to say that I can barely contain my fury that after receiving information yesterday that there is still yet more information today,” she said. “But nonetheless our goal here is to finish this, find a way to come to an agreement.”

Fredette and Republican Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner attempted assure the committee that yesterday’s omission was a mistake, not intentional.

“Nobody is coming here with any ill intent toward anybody,” Fredette said. “We’re simply trying to figure out how we get to 101 [votes],” a reference to the two-thirds threshold that will be needed to pass the budget as an emergency and end the shutdown.

But Fredette and his caucus’ refusal to support a compromise offered by Gideon and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau last week, and the revelation that he and LePage were drafting an alternative plan, has deepened suspicions about his motives.

During Sunday’s meeting, Democrats grilled Fredette about the governor’s support for the new proposal. Fredette wouldn’t guarantee it, leading committee members to question whether the governor would simply tack on more demands.

Thibodeau, who rarely shows agitation in public, stepped in. He said it was impossible to determine what the governor, or anyone else, will do.

“I don’t think that anybody in this room ought to try and guess what the trigger may be for the chief executive. He will make up his own mind. Our responsibility as an institution is to deliver a budget document. We have not done that yet,” he said.

The committee adjourned around noon and the four caucus leaders are expected to negotiate behind closed doors. The committee is expected to vote on the GOP proposal later Sunday. That vote could lead to a floor vote on another budget plan as early as Monday.

There were small protests at the State House on Sunday, but more out-of-work state workers are expected on Monday.

As negotiators worked through the evening, LePage released a video from the Blaine House and posted it on his Facebook page. Wearing shorts and golf shirt, the governor slammed Gideon and Thibodeau, saying neither was working for "the Maine people."

LePage then asserted that Gideon wanted to prolong the shutdown so that anticipated state employee protests could take place. He went on to say that he would evaluate his emergency civil order to ensure that as many state employees as possible worked through the shutdown.

With state worker protests scheduled for the State House on Monday, the governor announced late Sunday that he planned to give state employees administrative leave with pay.

Democrats said the governor’s move was a ploy to weaken turnout for the protests.

The administrative order means state workers will receive pay for the day if the Legislature approves a budget that includes retroactive pay for Monday.

This story was originally published on July 2, 2017, at 4:29 p.m. ET.