Metro

With no budget deal, Maine partially shuts its government

Union members and state workers protested a state government shutdown at the Maine State House in Augusta.
Patrick Whittle/Associated Press
Union members and state workers protested a state government shutdown at the Maine State House in Augusta.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine citizens will experience a partial state government shutdown after lawmakers failed to pass a new state budget.

The shutdown began early Saturday after rounds of budget votes failed Friday due to resistance from House Republicans.

The two-year, $7.1 billion budget would have eliminated a voter-approved 3 percent surtax on high earners to fund schools, provided $164 million in additional education funding and raised the state’s lodging tax.

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GOP Gov. Paul LePage and House Republicans want less spending, support for some policy initiatives that were rejected and an overall income tax cut.

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Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon says she left a late-night meeting at LePage’s residence in response to his ‘‘aggressive behavior’’ toward her.

LePage’s office didn’t immediately comment.

Phil Bartlett, chair of the Maine Democratic Party, placed the blame for the shutdown squarely on the governor and his GOP allies.

“Democrats fought hard as the voice of the people in this budget negotiation, and the people demanded increased education funding and property tax relief,” Bartlett said in a statement.

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“This budget compromise was not a victory for either side, but compromise is necessary in a divided government. Now Governor LePage and his House Republican backers are shutting down state government, punishing every single Mainer because they didn’t get their way.”

Bartlett is scheduled to join state employees for a solidarity rally at the State House on Saturday morning. “All hands on deck!” Bartlett said in a tweet late Friday. “Join me tomorrow!!”

LePage, a Republican, has for years been in conflict with lawmakers he calls too beholden to special interest groups and over-spending. On Friday, he once again accused legislators of waiting until the last minute to approve a budget and ‘‘trying to put a gun to the governor’s head.’’

He also criticized the closed-door negotiations and accused lawmakers of rushing into a bad compromise ‘‘so they can go home for the Fourth of July.’’

‘‘This budget that they have has no prayer, and if they’re hell-bent on bringing this budget down, then we will shut down at midnight tonight, and we'll talk to them in 10 days,’’ he told reporters, referring to the period during which he is allowed to review the budget bill.

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But at one point Friday night, LePage appealed for a last-minute compromise. “No need to shut down govt,” he tweeted.

“We can fix this. Let’s negotiate and get a budget done before midnight.”

State Senator Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, mocked the governor’s appeal in a stinging reply tweet. “Says the man who said 2 days ago ‘shutdown necessary for future of Maine,’ ” Bellows wrote. “You’re no hero here. Playing chicken with people’s lives.”

Bartlett also chided the GOP leadership for what he said was an insincere last-ditch attempt to bridge the gap.

“Waiting until under 4 hours til shutdown to talk about a ‘new plan’ reveals the incompetence and insincerity of @MaineHouseGOP,” the Democratic leader tweeted.

He later added, “This is about shameful theater by @Governor_LePageand @MaineHouseGOP and nothing more.”

But LePage defended his position in a statement that his office released late Friday. “This is not about today or tomorrow,” LePage said.

“This is about the future of Maine. The Maine people are taxed enough. I will not tax them anymore and in my budget overall taxes were decreased. Maine has plenty of revenue to fund state government without raising taxes.”

He added that the state is “very fortunate” to be able to pay welfare and jobless benefits during a shutdown.

“This is only because of the strong fiscal management we have implemented over the past seven years,” LePage said.

“Previous administrations lived day by day, ran huge deficits and could not make it through a shutdown. Because of our strong fiscal responsibility and financial discipline, we have enough in our accounts to make sure we can provide these payments.”

Legislative leaders in past days met behind closed doors to hammer out a deal after months of hearings resulted in multiple budgets rather than a single proposal.

A six-member committee late Thursday voted 5 to 1 on a two-year, $7.1 billion budget proposal that includes $162 million in additional public K-12 classroom spending and an increase in the lodging tax starting in October.

The Republican-controlled Senate on Friday supported the budget with a 34-to-1 vote, while House Republicans stymied passage of the budget in the Democrat-controlled house.

The budget proposal achieves Republicans’ priority of removing the voter-approved 3 percent income surtax on high earners to fund schools.

But the governor has said that’s not enough.

In his own $6.8 billion budget proposal, he called for delaying the surtax for a year. For 2018, he proposed including the 3 percent surtax in the new tax rates of 5.75 percent and 6.15 percent, down from the current rates of 5.8 percent, 6.75 percent, and 7.15 percent.

He also proposed a lodging tax increase in his budget, which included a pathway to a flat income tax of 5.75 percent by 2020.

The exact substance of the governor’s budget alternative was unknown late Friday.

Republican Representative Tom Winsor, a member of the Legislature’s appropriations committee, said that it was around $7 billion and included LePage-supported initiatives — like a voluntary pilot program to allow school districts to participate in a statewide teacher contract — that had been rejected.

LePage has said he would sign a budget that looks like the roughly $7 billion offered by House Republicans, which would add $92 million in funding for public K-12 schools and cut funding for non-citizens.

During the last shutdown, in 1991, a time of bleak revenues with no immediate sign of recovery, state employees flooded into the State House as citizens seeking services found shuttered motor vehicle offices, long waits to apply for food stamps and closed veterans’ cemeteries.

This year, revenues are healthy, with unemployment at a historic low. The union representing state employees said it’s ready to sue if workers aren’t paid on time in the coming weeks, while the nonprofit advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners sued to ensure the state continues to pay benefits to low-income Mainers even if there’s a shutdown.

The governor said his administration was taking steps to protect health and safety. State parks, correctional facilities and psychiatric hospitals would remain open. Law enforcement and first responders would be on the job. Bureau of motor vehicle offices would close, while at least one courthouse would be open in each county.

Boston Globe reporting was used in this story.