Maine lawmakers have backed themselves into a corner on tax conformity, Medicaid expansion

Good morning from Augusta. We’re in what are supposed to be the last two days of the 2018 legislative session and shades of the 2017 government shutdown are plaguing Gov. Paul LePage’s tax conformity push and Democratic efforts to fund Medicaid expansion.

Both of those issues may die after closed-door Monday meetings between leading legislators ended with House Republicans opposed to proposals around both conforming Maine’s tax code to recent federal changes and voter-approved Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Monday’s attempt at compromise led House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, to blast other legislative leaders on Tuesday over how it was handled, saying his caucus may not provide necessary votes to extend the legislative session past Wednesday, the scheduled adjournment date.

It seems as if Republicans and Democrats don’t see conformity and expansion, respectively, as issues to hold out on now. It’s unclear exactly what was floated in the Monday meetings on expansion. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, a member of the budget-writing committee, said on Tuesday that several proposals were exchanged and there was no deal, but “today is a new day.”

Sen. Cathy Breen of Falmouth, the lead Democrat on the panel, said there was an option to endorse a “good package” on both issues, but that a deal “just didn’t come together” amid House Republican opposition.

Breen said that while Democrats are “perfectly willing to engage in negotiation,” they’re also “not interested in swallowing any poison pills that we don’t need to swallow” and they may “go home” and try again to expand Medicaid in practice next year. Her party has been wary of business tax cuts in LePage’s conformity proposal.

Fredette blamed Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, for negotiating to get a deal that has been long unpalatable to House Republicans with little public debate, saying they “put themselves in this position.”

However, Thibodeau chief of staff Robert Caverly said Fredette is “either confused or he’s being dishonest” about negotiations on the issue, saying Senate Republicans haven’t agreed to anything. He said House Republicans walked away from negotiations on Monday, leaving it “hard” for Democrats “to know what the Republican position is.”

Fredette said while Republicans want to see something done on tax conformity, Democrats have put forward “no sustainable plan” to fund expansion and that House Republicans may withhold the two-thirds of votes necessary in both chambers to extend the legislative session if others float that as an option.

But it isn’t that simple, since bipartisan priorities linger and scores of bills are sitting around awaiting funding. Some Republicans and Democrats have cited raises for direct care workers as a legislative priority this session, but it’s unclear whether lawmakers will settle it.

There is also lots of procedural work to be done over the next two days, if that’s when the session is going to end, with 125 bills sitting on the Appropriations Table and awaiting final enactment and a total of $89 million in funding during the first year alone.

Bills often die there, but it’s likely that the Legislature spends some money to give those bills new life, given the $130 million budget surplus that was flagged earlier this year. We’re going to have some busy days in Augusta this week.

LePage inked a slew of new vetoes

The governor added to the pile of bills he opposes with nine new vetoes on Friday. The list includes a bill to improve — or make worse, according to LePage — the efficiency of the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, to prevent financial elder abuse, to provide tax exemptions for nonprofit heating assistance programs, restrict the electronic distribution of obscene materials, and to revise the municipal consolidation process. Those will come up in both the House and Senate in the coming days. By our count, with data from Gideon’s office, that makes 26 vetoes this year.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate convene this morning and, given what we’ve seen in recent days, likely will remain in session for much of the day. However, the House calendar looks light, though there are a number of controversial items on the unfinished business list. Waiting for reference to committee are several LePage proposals, including to require photo identification to vote, a bill to bar certain immigrants from social services, a proposal to eliminate the Maine Turnpike Authority, and a bill to abolish the requirement that employees pay union dues. That’s not all. Check out the full list on the House calendar.

The Senate is scheduled to start the day with debate and votes on a bill barring female genital mutilation, which is currently stuck in a partisan battle between the chambers in non-concurrence. Also up for possible debate is a bill to protect personal data online and a bill that has to do with prescription drug transparency.

Reading list

  • What does the Republican gubernatorial candidates’ political giving say about them? The Bangor Daily News’ Maine Focus team pored through years of campaign finance filings to find out how much candidates have given and to which causes. As it turns out, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls leads the field.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin is accruing far more campaign cash than his potential challengers. The second-term Republican had collected more than $2.6 million for his re-election bid as of the end of March. Democrat Jared Golden of Lewiston had raised more than $618,000 by March’s end, while Hampden Democrat Lucas St. Clair raised $425,000 over the same period. But the two Democrats have $308,000 and $196,000 left unspent, respectively. Two other Democrats vying to challenge Poliquin, Jonathan Fulford and Craig Olson, raised less. Poliquin has more than $2.2 million left.
  • Maine’s high school graduation requirements could be changing again. The Legislature’s education committee on Friday endorsed a bill that would remove the proficiency-based learning mandate. The bill would allow local districts to set graduation requirements. It won 803 support in committee and now heads to votes in the House and Senate. Maine was the first state to require that students demonstrate proficiency in specific subject areas in order to receive a diploma.
  • Gun rights advocates rallied in Augusta on Saturday. Among them were several Republican candidates for statewide office. Between 600 and 800 people gathered in an area outside the State House where, ironically, guns are not allowed. They were part of a nationwide response to calls for firearms restrictions in response to the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Who’s the adult? Not me.

I was hanging with my 7-year-old on Saturday, escaping the dreary weather and playing a video game. OK, maybe I acted a little excited when I defeated a certain bad guy. There was an awkward silence.

“Dad, act your age,” said the boy.

A number of responses swirled through my head. For example: “No.” And “I’m just having fun.” And “I’m a kid at heart.” And “You don’t want to rush growing up, sonny.”

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a little stubborn, so instead of taking advantage of a teachable moment I doubled down.

“BOOOOOOOMMM shackalacka,” I yelled as I pounced on another cyber enemy. I scared the dog, and my 13-year-old (who is and will always be more mature than I am) yelled from upstairs, wondering if everything was OK.

I’m more than OK, boys. Here’s my fatherly advice: Save your maturity for performing CPR and your college applications. Here’s my soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Christopher Cousins, Michael Shepherd and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.