Maine Democrats make their own state government shutdown threat

With less than a month left before statutory adjournment, Democrats have threatened to shut down government if state funding for schools doesn’t reach 55 percent.

Fifty-two Democratic and two independent House members, along with four Democratic senators, have signed a pact to oppose any budget bill that doesn’t have “a progressive and sustainable funding source to reach 55 percent of the cost of our kids’ education as called for by Maine voters.”

The pact does not say explicitly that the signers will oppose any budget that repeals Question 2, but it states clearly that voters “knew what they were doing when they voted to fund education at 55 percent for the second time.”

If this is the first time you’ve read about education funding in Maine, “second time” refers to last year’s referendum and the 2004 referendum that called for 55 percent state funding for K-12 public education in Maine. This battle has been raging for 13 years and counting, and much of the debate lies around what 55 percent really is. Does it include everything, including teacher retirement and health insurance costs or just the stuff that’s covered by state subsidies sent directly to schools?

It’s unsurprising that a group of Democrats is pledging to support Democratic budget priorities that have been named the “Opportunity Agenda,” but what is noteworthy here is the number, which would be enough to block the two-thirds vote needed to enact a biennial state budget.

The Democratic organizers of the letter, Rep. Scott Hamann of South Portland and Rep. Michael Sylvester of Portland, said the effort is about trying to leverage the Legislature to support the will of the voters when it comes to education funding and setting up an ongoing source of direct funding that isn’t prone to political and economic whims.

“Right now, Question 2 does all of those things,” said Sylvester. “The answer can’t be one-time money. It has to be both progressive and sustainable.”

Sylvester and Hamann say Republicans look ready to shut down government over school funding but now they’re drawing their own line in the sand.

Legislative leaders continue to say what they have been saying for weeks: agreement on the state budget bill is still highly uncertain. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Wednesday that negotiations are sputtering, at best, and that education funding and Question 2 are among the issues at the center of the debate.

The Legislature’s budget committee, which is nearing deadlines to make a recommendation on a new two-year $6.8 billion spending plan, are prepared to work through the holiday weekend in search of a solution, but we’re not expecting a resolution until the very last possible moment, if not sometime in July.

‘Tis the season for government shutdown threats. — Christopher Cousins

Nothing changes in Maine’s delegation after new GOP health care bill estimates

The Congressional Budget Office’s score of House Republicans newest health care bill came out yesterday, finding it would increase the number of uninsured by 23 million by 2026 while reducing federal deficits by $119 billion.

Maine’s congressional delegation has already taken a dim view of the American Health Care Act, except for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from the 2nd District, who voted for it. Nothing changed in their statements after Tuesday’s score.

Poliquin has long pointed to problems in the current Affordable Care Act market. In a statement on Thursday morning, his spokesman did that again and didn’t mention the score, but said he “looks forward to the Senate’s review of the legislation and will continue to work on further improvements to the bill.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said that while the Affordable Care Act needs reform, the bill currently up for changes in the Senate would “disproportionately affect older, low-income Americans.”

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said “it will not only leave tens of millions of people without health insurance, but that it will also drastically increase the costs of health care for working people in Maine – particularly those in rural areas.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, said House Republicans should “denounce TrumpCare and urge their Senate colleagues to be more responsible with the health care of millions of Americans.” — Michael Shepherd

Correction: An earlier version of this post gave the wrong deficit reduction figure for the American Health Care Act. It is $119 billion over 10 years.

Quick hits

  • A group run by a bomb-throwing conservative lawmaker was fined $250 by Maine’s ethics watchdog on Wednesday for violating disclosure law with a 2016 mailer. The Maine Ethics Commission voted to fine the New England Opportunity Project, a group run by Rep. Lawrence Lockman, R-Amherst, for not identifying its top three donors in a campaign mailer last year that was critical of then-House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. It comes after the group was fined nearly $700 in December for a late ethics filing. — Michael Shepherd
  • Enough Republicans voted Wednesday against Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to lower the lifetime cap on TANF to defeat the proposal. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would lower the lifetime cap on receiving benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from the current 60 months to 36 months. A similar provision is included in the governor’s biennial budget bill. The bill failed 19-16 Wednesday, with Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Tom Saviello of Wilton voting with the Democrats against the measure. The bill is up for consideration this morning in the House. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

At the top of the House calendar this morning is the resolution that would fund the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport for another two years, which passed convincingly Wednesday in the Senate. It remains to be seen whether House Republicans stand with LePage on closing the prison, but as we reported Wednesday, this has the makings of an epic showdown with the governor.

Further down the calendar, the House will consider a bill that would increase the state’s share of the cost of health insurance for retired teachers. The House and Senate are in disagreement about the details of the bill, which could spell its doom.

Also on the House docket: A bill to create an addiction rehabilitation program in county jails; a bill to help Maine teachers pay off student loan debt; a bill to make children of state employees eligible for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program; and a bill to require presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns. Most of those bills come from committees with partisan, divided recommendations, which means most of them have days that are numbered. Here’s the bills’ soundtrack.

The Senate calendar lists many more bills that Republicans and Democrats disagree on. Remember the BDN story earlier this year that found no more than 48 percent of bills have been enacted by any Maine Legislature in the past two decades, and usually the number is much lower? It’s calendars like today’s that lead to numbers like that.

The Senate will vote on a gubernatorial veto of LD 146, a bill that has to do with protecting personal information of government employees. The veto was overridden in the House on Wednesday. Also up for votes are a bill to provide cost-of-living raises for Maine state retirees and a bill to regulate underground hydraulic fracturing to protect drinking water.

Top on the committee schedule today is a public hearing on LePage’s proposal to phase out the Maine Turnpike Authority in the Transportation Committee. The energy committee will also hold work sessions on bills around solar power. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Assault on reporters? Not here.

National political reports this morning include one from Montana, where a GOP congressional candidate allegedly “body-slammed” a reporter — the day before the election — and was charged with misdemeanor assault.

That won’t happen here. For one, the Bangor Daily News political team is basically composed of pacifists. For another, physics rules say Mike (at 6 feet 5 inches) has leverage working for him and in a pinch, Chris (shorter, but a former high school football linebacker and fullback) has blunt force.

Still, there are some who might like to body slam us now and then, such as one guy at the State House who was complaining on Wednesday about us asking a certain question, implying that we’re “journalists” in quotes, and speculating about what the soundtrack would be.

Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.