Committee votes to send budget proposal to House and Senate
A small committee of lawmakers late Thursday night voted to send a $7.1 billion, two-year budget proposal to the House and Senate in hopes of avoiding a government shutdown as Republican Gov. Paul LePage vowed to veto any deal that will harm Maine.
As lawmakers scramble to meet a Friday midnight deadline to approve a budget, LePage said Thursday that a government shutdown is "necessary for the future of Maine" just a day after saying that his administration "does not want a shutdown."
Republicans and Democrats in the state have scrapped over the budget for weeks, with much of the discord involving funding for education. The key caucus now is House Republicans, whose votes are needed for the required two-thirds support in both chambers.
Republican Rep. Tom Winsor said he voted against the proposal because he didn't have time to review it with his caucus. Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen said she voted for the deal to prevent a government shutdown, but also criticized the anti-transparent nature of recent budget deal-making.
"This will be the second Legislature in a row that has abandoned the normal transparent appropriations committee process," she said, later adding: "This causes me honestly great concern."
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said there are elements of the budget that Republicans and Democrats will dislike, but she urged the governor to take action immediately if the Legislature passes it before the Friday midnight deadline.
But LePage said that if he's presented with a budget that raises taxes without cutting income taxes, the state should be "ready for a shutdown." The governor has said he would take his full 10 days to review such a budget, and he noted that lawmakers have had months to come up with a deal.
"They're playing chicken at 100 mph," he said on a radio appearance on WGAN-AM. "If you want to play chicken, let's play chicken."
On Wednesday, LePage said in a statement that his administration doesn't want a shutdown but was preparing for one.
LePage says state agencies have begun preparing for a partial state shutdown that would begin Saturday — leaving bureau of motor vehicle offices closed but state parks, correctional facilities, law enforcement agencies and psychiatric hospitals open.
The union representing state employees threatened to sue the state if workers aren't paid on time in the coming weeks, while a nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to ensure that the state continues paying benefits to low-income Mainers.
Lawmakers on Thursday voted to extend the legislative session for up to five additional days. Gideon told lawmakers the day before to expect to work on the budget through the Fourth of July weekend if necessary.
"I believe we can come together and do this in the time frame that we have," she said.
The six-member budgeting committee voted 5-1 on the budget deal. It needed the support of two House members and two Senate members to send a budget onto the floor.
The proposal is similar to one offered by Senate Republicans this week. It includes a provision that the state's tax on lodging would be increased from 9 percent to 10.5 percent in October to help fund an additional $162 million in education funding and property tax relief.
The governor himself proposed such a lodging tax increase in his budget, which also included a proposal for a flat income tax of 5.75 percent by 2020.
Democrats have recently said they'd nix a voter-approved income surtax on high earners, estimated to bring in $320 million for schools, for a budget that includes at least $200 million in additional, sustainable education spending.
Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau said the proposal nixes that income surtax and includes ideas from all four caucuses, such as millions in increased funding for direct care workers.
But the pivotal House Republican caucus struck a more cautious note, with Rep. Winsor calling it an "intriguing proposal."
"I'm concerned because this is the first time I've seen it," he said Thursday night, adding that it's "clear" that House Republicans wouldn't vote on something "they've not had an opportunity to review."
LePage had endorsed a separate proposal by House Republicans that would add $98 million in education funding and support for LePage's education proposals that lawmakers had rejected. For example, the proposal included $27 million for a fund to reduce salary disparities as part of a statewide teacher contract.
Associated Press writer Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.