House GOP leader: Special Maine budget panel ‘doomed to fail’

The committee that is supposed to find a path out of the budget impasse in Augusta is “too little, too late,” according to House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who said the panel is “doomed to fail.”

The six-member conference committee convened Tuesday with the ambitious goal of finding a budget compromise in time for the Legislature to enact it and send it to Gov. Paul LePage by Friday afternoon. That’s a goal the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee worked toward for more than five months until negotiations fell apart two weeks ago and the committee voted out split recommendations that have no chance of passage in the full Legislature.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, appointed themselves to the committee along with four others. Under conference committee rules, whatever compromise is reached needs the support of at least two senators and two House members. The budget that goes to the full Legislature can’t be amended on the floor. If the up-or-down votes fail, the conference committee reconvenes and starts all over again.

Because any budget deal would have to be enacted as an emergency bill requiring two-thirds support in both chambers, there is no way to budget enactment without the votes of at least 20 House Republicans if all six independents vote with the Democrats. And the Democrats have their own potential problems: 52 of them pledged a couple of weeks ago that they won’t support any budget that doesn’t increase the state’s share of public education to 55 percent of the total cost and which doesn’t identify an ongoing funding source for the increased spending.

Fredette and Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a conservative member of the Appropriations Committee, said the structure of the conference committee means the budget is basically in the hands of Thibodeau and Gideon, who need the support of only Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, respectively, to push it forward.

“We’ve got essentially the two majority leaders writing the budget,” said Fredette. “This process is a failed process. … We were never told Mike and Sara were going to appoint themselves to the committee, which leaves them writing the budget and damn it, they’re setting themselves up for a failure. When that happens it’s not going to be House Republicans’ fault. This is doomed for failure.”

Those are fightin’ words. House Republicans have a history of sticking together under Fredette, particularly on budget bills. Two years ago, their resistance took negotiations into the final days of the legislative session. This year, Fredette and his caucus’s preferred spending plan for public schools is approximately $300 million short of Democrats’ proposal and $200 million short of Senate Republicans’.

Gideon responded to Fredette with dismay and said if he wanted to be on the committee, the rules say he had to vote on the prevailing side on Monday when House Democrats pushed through their version of the budget. She said the minority caucus is well represented by Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee.

“I trust that Rep. Winsor will faithfully represent the views of the House Republican leadership,” said Gideon in a written statement late Tuesday. “I’m truly disappointed that Rep. Fredette has such a negative view of the work ahead.”

Gideon said Democrats have been clear about their budget priorities and given the impasse and looming deadlines, something had to be done.

“In order to continue to do our work, to serve the people of Maine and to close a budget, we must move this process forward,” she said. “We must continue our legacy of leadership and we must close this budget before June 30.”

Thibodeau agreed.

“We’re not going to craft a perfect budget among the six of us, but I hope we’re going to come to an agreement that is acceptable to our colleagues,” he said during the committee’s first meeting.

One dynamic that could possibly help negotiations move forward is that the conference committee is bound to negotiate in public with their deliberations live-streamed online. That is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today. Want to listen? Click here. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has two full days planned at Maine’s new national monument after dinner with LePage last night. President Donald Trump’s public lands chief is touring the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument today and meeting with stakeholders tomorrow as part of his department’s review of the Millinocket-area park. LePage, an opponent of former President Barack Obama’s designation of the monument, hosted Zinke at the Blaine House for dinner on Tuesday, saying on Twitter that the secretary “needs to hear opposition” to the monument. — Michael Shepherd
  • Two-time Democratic congressional candidate and former Maine lawmaker Emily Cain will run one of the biggest national progressive groups. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the 37-year-old Democrat from Orono is moving to Washington, D.C., to become executive director of the conveniently named EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. The group backed Cain in her unsuccessful 2014 and 2016 races against Republican Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. She spent a decade in the Maine Legislature before that. — Michael Shepherd
  • A representative for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians says Gov. Paul LePage agreed to let their small casino proposal become law if it passes the Maine Senate today. In one of the low-key surprises of the legislative session, the proposal sponsored by Rep. Henry John Bear of Houlton passed the Democratic-led House of Representatives in a 74-70 vote on Wednesday. In an email to legislators, Bear said LePage told tribal leaders that he’d let the bill become law if it passes the Senate in a vote scheduled for today. LePage spokespeople Adrienne Bennett and Peter Steele didn’t return an email seeking comment this morning. The bill would allow the tribe to operate a casino with 350 slot machines and 10 table games on property in Houlton. Passage in the Republican-led Senate will be difficult: Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls and all but one of his fellow Republicans opposed Bear’s bill in committee. — Michael Shepherd
  • A Democratic bill aimed at getting presidential candidates to disclose tax returns failed in the House on Tuesday. The bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, was aimed squarely at President Donald Trump, who broke with decades of presidential campaign precedent by not disclosing tax returns, but it went down hard in the House on Wednesday in an initial 90-51 vote. — Michael Shepherd
  • Several of LePage’s vetoes were sustained Tuesday. LePage has a mixed record when it comes to his vetoes, with generally more being overridden that sustained, but his success rate improved on Tuesday. Enough senators agreed with LePage about LD 889, which would have barred the use of tanning booths for people under age 18, to kill the bill. The vote was 22-13 in favor of the veto, but that wasn’t the required two-thirds needed to override. In the House, four vetoes were sustained. The veto of LD 374, which contained revisions to Maine’s criminal code, was sustained in a 79-68 vote. LD 1191, which would have extended the probationary period for certain newly hired municipal employees, died 90-57. LD 901, which would have imposed new standards on the siting of wind energy generation sites, died 75-72. LD 152, which would have forced executive branch employees to testify to legislative committees when requested, is also dead. The House voted 85-62 to sustain the governor’s veto. — Christopher Cousins
  • And LePage issued a new round of vetoes on Tuesday. This will be the scenario for the next few weeks. The House and Senate calendars reflect three new LePage vetoes of bills that would allow corrections officers to administer an opiate overdose antidote, establish a tourism grant program for small communities and look to improve Maine’s network of after-school programs. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

The House and Senate have full calendars today — but not perhaps as full as you’d expect with exactly a week left in the scheduled legislative session. They’re both in at 10 a.m. today.

The big votes scheduled include the Maliseet casino bill in the Senate, initial House votes on bills to provide for a statewide teacher contract and restrict the use of welfare benefits outside of Maine and a final Senate vote on a bill to arm forest rangers.

The aforementioned budget conference committee is scheduled to meet before session at 9 a.m. and in the afternoon beginning at 1 p.m. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee also will look to finish up their work for the session with a work session and public hearing. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

I made fun of someone’s orphaned tie and now I’m a jerk

Late in the day Tuesday, I noticed a tie hanging on a door button in the Cross Office Building, which is part of the State House complex. I figured it had probably been dropped by someone and set out by someone else hoping to reconnect the garment and its owner.

I snapped a photo and late last night, decided to have a bit of fun with it on Facebook because, well, let’s just say the tie isn’t my style.

“Maybe someone lost it but I’m thinking that thing was discarded on purpose,” I wrote, thinking the chances were slim that those words would make it to the tie’s owner. I forgot the power of social media.

Less than 10 minutes later, a Senate staffer was in touch to say he knows whose tie it is.

This is awkward. 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.