Maine Lawmakers Cut a Compromise to End Shutdown
By Christopher Cousins
Hope soared at the State House just after 10 p.m. Monday when Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon struck a deal for a bipartisan budget bill and an end to Maine's three-day government shutdown.
The House of Representatives voted 147-2 in favor of the deal at nearly 1 a.m. Tuesday and the Senate followed suit 35-0. LePage signed the budget into law.
At around 9:45 p.m., the House convened briefly send the budget back to the conference committee, said Gideon at the rostrum. The Senate quickly did so a few minutes later.
Gideon, D-Freeport, then joined five other members of a special budget committee to vote on the compromise that aims to end the shutdown. At 10:30 p.m., that group met and sent the new budget agreement to the full Legislature.
"We have reached an agreement," Gideon said.
Legislative staff then began preparing documents to send the roughly $7.1 billion two-year spending plan into law.
According to Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, House chairwoman of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, key elements of the deal include negating the proposed lodging tax increase, which LePage and Republicans have treated as a poison pill.
In exchange, Hymanson said, Democrats were able to secure two items they have been fighting for this year: One is a two-year moratorium on changes to the funding structure for the state's behavioral health system, which the Department of Health and Human Services has been trying to implement since a 2016 Burns & Associates report. The other item is the allocation of more federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding for early childhood education programs.
"I am just delighted with these changes," said Hymanson. "They're thrilling."
Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee and who has voted against previous budget deal attempts, said she will support this one.
"I think these items are very modest, very reasonable requests that when you are in the negotiation process are certainly two options that we were happy to consider in order to not raise taxes and close the budget," said Sanderson.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said his caucus and the governor support the deal, though it will take time for the process to unfold to enactment.
"The challenge was to get to a budget that would bring the governor along," said Fredette. "To get him to sign this budget is amazing. This will be done tonight."
Rod Hiltz, director of the Maine State Employees Association, which represents thousands of state employees, said the deal is welcome and that it means no state workers would lose pay as a result of the shutdown.
"We got what we needed for our workers and to us, that's a victory," he said.
The developments capped a dramatic day at the State House.
After an early afternoon House vote fell nine votes short of the two-thirds support needed to pass the budget as an emergency measure -- and possibly override a likely veto from LePage -- lawmakers again dragged the day's work into darkness with another game of who-will-blink-first with the governor.
During the afternoon, LePage lobbied lawmakers and promised that he would either sign the bill immediately or sit on it for 10 days before vetoing it -- extending the shutdown -- depending on whether legislators meet his demands.
Adding to the scenario was news that LePage reportedly is planning to leave Maine. Early Monday, a spokeswoman for Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport said the governor informed GOP senators that he has a trip planned.
"He told the Senate president and another senator that he will be leaving town until [July 14]," wrote Krysta West, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. "He didn't mention a destination."
Peter Steele, LePage's communications director, said social media posts and rumors that LePage is going on vacation were "100 percent fake news." When asked whether LePage plans to travel outside Maine in the next few days, Steele wouldn't answer.
"Instead of reporting fake news from Twitter, the Maine media should be asking [House] Speaker [Sara] Gideon when she is going to send a budget to the governor's desk that does not raise taxes on Maine families and businesses," was Steele's entire response.
LePage and his staff later told WCSH and the Portland Press Herald that he does not have a trip planned.
LePage proposed raising the lodging tax to 10.5 percent in his original budget plan back in January, but it was part of a tax change package that included a much larger income tax cut. Earlier on Monday, Gideon had said that eliminating the proposed increase was "off the table," but the late changes to human services program funding appeared to have altered that stance.
Gideon said late Monday that funding for the direct care workers will be an issue that she hopes can be addressed next year in a supplemental budget bill.
"Getting government reopened was my priority but this process, I don't want anyone to forget, was upside-down," Gideon said. "We were all taken hostage in this process, every legislator in this building and every person in this state, by the governor forcing us into this shutdown. I'm glad we're on our way out but this never should have happened."
(c)2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)