LePage hammers Senate GOP budget offer as shutdown approaches

Gov. Paul LePage has again vowed to shut down state government if the Legislature votes for an increase in the lodging tax, which the governor himself proposed in February and which was resurrected Wednesday by Senate Republicans.

That proposal drew fire from LePage on Thursday, who accused Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, of just wanting to “go home” at any expense to the state budget.

With about 40 hours left now before the end of Maine’s fiscal year, LePage’s statement casts an even darker cloud, if that’s possible, over a situation where there is a path to the enactment of a state budget in time to avoid a shutdown, but it’s narrow and fraught with obstacles.

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans came to the table with some new concessions, including more education funding than their previous proposal, funding for direct-care workers and a partial restoration of property tax relief programs. To help fund some of those items, they proposed raising the state’s lodging tax from 9 percent to 10 percent — but remain firm on repealing the education surtax enacted by voters in 2016.

It’s not clear what level of acceptance there is for those provisions among legislative Democrats and House Republicans, but it’s clear where LePage stands: He’ll cause a government shutdown by holding the budget for the 10 days the law gives him to make a decision about whether to sign or veto bills.

“If they put in a tax increase, get ready for a shutdown. End of story,” said LePage Thursday morning during a radio interview on WGAN. “If you increase taxes without lowering the income tax, I will take my 10 days.”

For the second time this week, LePage framed budget negotiations as a game of chicken between himself and the Legislature.

“They’re playing chicken at 100 miles per hour,” he said. “If you want to play chicken, let’s play chicken.”

LePage said he is open to increasing education funding by $200 million over what is being spent in the current biennium but only under very rigid circumstances: Repeal the surtax, enact education reform proposals that have already been rejected by the Legislature, such as administration consolidation and a statewide teacher contract, and wait to see if those proposals generate new savings.

“If we don’t reach the goal of the $200 million [between now and July of 2018], then we’ll put in a supplemental budget for the funding that you need,” said LePage.

Democrats, who have already agreed to reduce the education surtax, which in current law would generate an estimated $320 million for schools over the next two years, are unlikely to bow to LePage’s demands based on a promise. Regardless, the only hope of avoiding a shutdown at this point is for a deal to be struck today, a budget to garner two-thirds support in both the House and Senate on Friday, and for LePage to either sign or veto the budget immediately.

Even in that latest scenario, the Legislature would have to convene on Saturday to override the veto with the government shut down around them.

Meanwhile, the governor further torched his relationship with Thibodeau, which has been troubled for years, over the Senate Republicans’ proposal for a lodging tax increase. Thibodeau has advocated against tax increases throughout negotiations — until Wednesday, arguing that concessions are necessary to break the impasse and that the lodging tax hits mostly out-of-staters.

“Mike Thibodeau, I’ll be very honest, he tells me one thing and the next morning, I wake up and it’s totally different,” said LePage, who proposed raising the lodging tax to 10 percent in his original proposal. “I don’t know. He assured me there was not going to be any tax increases and now, I’m going to work this morning and there’s going to be a tax increase.”

Asked for a reaction Thursday morning, Thibodeau said only, “we are reluctantly capitulating to the governor’s original budget proposal to raise the lodging tax.”

Leaders clashing like this during negotiations usually indicates a long road ahead. That could prove very true in this instance, even though the end of the road to a shutdown is less than two days away. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • The House of Representatives and Senate deadlocked Wednesday on a bid to kill Maine’s ranked-choice voting law, leaving it in place at least until next year. In a bit of a surprise, the Maine Senate voted 18-12 yesterday against convening a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate on the voter-approved law. That killed a bill from Senate Majority Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, to repeal it after Maine’s high court said it was unconstitutional last month. Now, the Legislature has picked what Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said earlier this month is the worst of their five options on the law: Doing nothing, leaving him to implement a law wrought with constitutional questions for the 2018 elections. The Legislature could pass fixes next year, but it’ll roil election administrators. Supporters cheered the move, with former state Sen. Dick Woodbury, I-Yarmouth, who chaired the campaign that passed the law, saying “it’s time to move forward with implementation” in a statement. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage told reporters in Washington, D.C., that he opposes the U.S. Senate’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The governor was meeting with President Donald Trump on energy issues, but told reporters outside the White House that he opposes the Senate bill “because they didn’t go far enough to fix it.” He criticized the bill — which a Congressional Budget Office estimate says would cause 22 million more to lose insurance — from the right. Maine’s U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, are against the bill for opposite reasons, seeing it as too harsh. LePage issued a statement later in the day saying while he backs Trump’s “efforts” to replace the Affordable Care Act, the Senate bill should freeze Medicaid expansion and include invisible risk pools, which LePage and fellow Republicans passed at the state level in 2011. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage vetoed a bill to fund county jails. This is the latest chapter in a long story of LePage, the Legislature and counties sparring over who should fund the state’s county jails. The jails’ struggle for funding is even longer. Democratic Gov. John Baldacci tried a state takeover of county jails in 2006 but that failed and in 2008, he and the Legislature enacted a bill that capped local taxpayers’ liability for jail costs. That has shifted more cost to the state over the years. LePage has said consistently that whichever entity controls the jails should also fund them. LePage unraveled a legislative bill to fix the system in 2014. Even though the Legislature overrode his veto, he then refused to nominate members to the Board of Corrections as the bill called on him to do. The bill LePage just vetoed, LD 463, seeks to allow county jails to take prisoners from other jails or the state prison system and alters the cap on local spending. It passed through the Legislature without opposition. In his veto letter, which hasn’t been posted on the governor’s website but which appears in today’s House calendar, LePage wrote that “whoever operates the jails needs to bear the responsibility for paying for the jails. This bill does not contain that proposed solution.” — Christopher Cousins
  • A U.S. Senate committee crafted a defense spending proposal that would pump millions of dollars to Maine contractors. U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he touted the spending plan, which still must navigate deeper congressional waters, as evidence that he continues to” fight to support Maine jobs that help strengthen our national security.” The proposal includes funding for a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which Bath Iron Works could compete to build. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Huntington Ingalls Industries, BIW’s only competitor to build Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, learned that it would build the first Arleigh Burke-class destroyer to carry Flight III technology. The DDG 125 was already awarded to the Pascagoula, Mississippi, yard as part of the last multi-year procurement, so Tuesday’s announcement doesn’t constitute a “new” award for the Mississippi shipyard. Flight III will incorporate SPY-6 (Air and Missile Defense Radar) and upgraded electrical power, among other new technologies. The ship is expected to be completed in 2024. — Beth Brogan

Today in A-town

The Legislature’s six-person budget committee essentially has to vote on Thursday to send a budget to the chambers that they can vote by tomorrow, the last day of Maine’s fiscal year. There’s no set time for the committee to convene, but it’s expected to come in by late morning.

However, LePage’s comments this morning underscore just how unclear it is whether they can muster a package that will get the necessary two-thirds vote in each chamber. Even if they do, it’s more unclear still whether LePage would sign or veto it quickly to avoid a shutdown.

Before that, the House and Senate are scheduled to be in, but they’re basically done with all non-budget business and their calendars are light. There’s an order up first in the Senate to extend Maine’s legislative session by another five days, while the House will consider the jail veto. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • Who wants to be hassled when nude? Someone in Gray asks whether there’s a place in their region “where people can lay out or take a dip without clothes and not be hassled.”
  • Calling random people beautiful doesn’t always work out. A man who apparently complimented a woman “buying a red bull” at a convenience store in Waterboro wants to reconnect, saying “I wish we could talk” and “im sorry if I made you nervous,” but “I was just telling you the truth.”
  • This person wants to see a movie with you, as long as you don’t smell. A woman in Augusta wants to see the new “Transformers” movie or “Wonder Woman” with someone, but she isn’t picky: “As long as you do not smell from lack of personal hygiene, drugs or smoking; and as long as you are not obnoxious and poorly behaved in a movie theater, I can handle sitting next to you in a dark movie theater without assessing you in advance. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd

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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.