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Maine’s budget impasse continues as state leaders work to find common ground

Governor Paul LePage of Maine and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.
Governor Paul LePage of Maine and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.associated press

Maine lawmakers convened on the first day of the state’s partial government shutdown Saturday evening to try and hammer out a budget deal to get the government back up and running, amid anger at Republicans and a spat between the governor and the speaker of the house.

The state’s first shutdown in a quarter century began after lawmakers failed to meet Friday’s deadline for a new state budget, with House Republicans objecting to $162 million in increased education spending in a proposed two-year, $7.1 billion budget. A committee reviewing the proposal adjourned Saturday night without reaching agreement. The panel will reconvene Sunday morning.

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Maine Governor Paul LePage was absent from the evening meeting at the State House, to which Speaker of the House Sara Gideon had invited him. The two had traded barbs on Twitter earlier in the day over where to meet to discuss the shutdown, with each refusing to cross Capitol Street to speak to the other.

“Been available to negotiate since 8,” tweeted LePage, who wanted to meet at the Blaine House, his residence. “@saragideon is welcome to come over any time.”

Gideon replied in a tweet of her own: “I am at the State House. This is where budget negotiations belong.”

In between the feuding lawmakers, hundreds of state workers who had abruptly found themselves without paychecks coming gathered at the State House to protest the shutdown. The Portland Press Herald reported a crowd of about 150, who chanted “Shame” at lawmakers whose votes caused the shutdown.

LePage vowed last week he would not sign any budget that did not include his overall income tax proposals. He proposed an alternative budget late Friday. Gideon called the alternative budget a list of demands that would require at least a day of work, and some Democrats charged that the proposal was just an attempt to sabotage lawmakers from passing a budget at all.

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“That’s how we feel we’ve been hijacked,” said Representative Robert Alley, a Democrat. “He wants to get his own agenda out. Schooling’s our number one priority.”

Gideon had invited LePage to the State House to present his new budget proposal at the Saturday evening meeting, where a six-member group was working to try to finalize a new budget.

But LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said that while the governor had been willing to offer his own budget, which they called “a vehicle for compromise,” to avoid a shutdown, it was not possible for a new bill to be printed in a timely manner. Therefore, Bennett said, the governor would not present his budget.

Union members and state workers protested at the Maine State House in Augusta on Saturday.
Union members and state workers protested at the Maine State House in Augusta on Saturday.Patrick Whittle/Associated Press

Instead, Bennett said, House Republicans would offer amendments to the existing budget in hopes that the changes could lead to the two-thirds majority it needs to pass.

Rob Poindexter, communications director for the Maine House Republicans, said that House Republican leader Representative Kenneth Wade Fredette was slated to present the House GOP proposal.

“The governor looks forward to reviewing that proposal in the hopes it will provide a solution to this shutdown,” said Bennett in a statement.

By early evening Saturday, legislators were still searching for a solution.

Saturday’s machinations followed final-hour scrambling Friday by legislative leaders as they tried and failed to avert the shutdown. Gideon said that LePage behaved “aggressively” toward her during a late night meeting with three other lawmakers as they discussed his proposed budget.

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“She will not be meeting with him in private or alone again,” said Gideon’s spokeswoman Mary Erin Casale, who said the aggressive behavior was verbal and no formal complaint had been filed. She declined to describe it further.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Bennett, also declined to get into specifics, but said the two had a tense exchange over the details of a potential compromise, and at one point both LePage and Gideon got up and left the table.

“The governor came back, Speaker Gideon did not,” said Bennett. “Speaker Gideon has not been willing to meet with the governor since.”

The last time the Maine government shut down was 1991, Casale said, and that lasted 16 days.

Casale said it was not clear how long the current shutdown would last or what the next steps are.

Casale said the first effects of the shutdown would be felt immediately by about 11,000 to 12,000 government employees, some of whom, like state troopers, are deemed “emergency personnel” and must come to work without pay, and others who are not, and will neither work nor be paid until the government is back up and running.

“Not knowing how they’re going to pay their mortgage, how they’ll afford groceries, how they’ll afford day care, or when they’ll come back to work,” said Casale. “And they’re not spending money in their local communities.”

Additionally, she said, 167 state-funded construction projects are now on hold, and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is shut down so no one can register a vehicle or get a license. One courthouse will be open in each county.

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Other services remain in limbo, Casale said, while the governor decides which employees are emergency and non-emergency. For example, she said, positions like a food inspector have not yet been categorized.


Material from the Associated Press is included in this report, and correspondent Kiana Cole contributed. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.