AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage repeatedly attacked legislative leaders’ decision to negotiate the final elements of the state’s $6.7 billion two-year budget plan in secret, at one point saying that they “checked their character and integrity at the door.”

On June 16, as lawmakers took votes to ratify the budget, the governor took to the air with Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr.

“I have no clue what they’re passing, what they’re not passing,” LePage said.

But emails and documents obtained by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access Act request show that senior staff within the LePage administration were well aware of the details of the budget talks and helped draft several tax analyses that later became key to the budget’s passage in the Legislature. Additionally, the documents show that the governor’s deputy finance chief produced the final analysis the afternoon before Democratic and Republican leaders were set to brief their caucuses on the new agreement the evening of June 15.

“Hopefully this works for everyone,” Michael Allen wrote in a June 15 email that contained the final analysis of tax changes that will provide a $135.4 million tax cut while reducing the tax burden on over 597,000 Maine families. The email was sent to LePage’s deputy chief of staff and legislative liaison, as well as the chiefs of staff of all four legislative leaders. Allen, who advises the governor on tax policy, concluded by saying he would help to write an explanation of the changes that leaders could use to educate rank and file members.

CRITICISM TIED TO TAX REFORM

The tax changes were among the sticking points in a budget that LePage has criticized as “business as usual.” LePage’s repeated attacks on the budget and its key negotiators have formed the foundation of his campaign to convince voters that lawmakers can’t be trusted, laying the rhetorical groundwork for 2016 referendum to eliminate the income tax.

The administration’s involvement in the final elements of the budget deal was well known among key players at the State House, and Allen’s analysis was distributed to the media when leaders released details of the plan.

However, the administration’s role has been overshadowed by LePage’s attacks on the secretive nature of final negotiations, even though the bulk of the spending plan was crafted during the traditional committee process. The governor has repeatedly used the bully pulpit of his office in an effort to discredit the budget, which jettisoned many of his major policy initiatives, including a controversial tax overhaul soundly rejected by Republicans leaders.

Conservative groups that support the governor have echoed his criticisms.

“Secretive, late-night decisions made under the cover of darkness and behind locked doors resulted in a budget deal based on the best interests of a handful of politicians, not what is best for the people of Maine,” LePage wrote in a four-page letter vetoing the budget.

The documents obtained by the Press Herald provide a glimpse into the budget negotiations that became the focus of a legislative session in which the governor grew increasingly estranged from state lawmakers, eventually vowing to veto all bills until the end of his second term. Nonetheless, a chain of emails shows the governor and his staff held several meetings with Republican leadership to develop alternative tax plans that could pass in the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

COOPERATING, BUT FELT SHUT OUT

Allen, a tax expert who was appointed as the governor’s deputy finance chief in 2014, was regularly enlisted to produce analyses for tax changes negotiated by legislative leadership, which includes Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

In many instances, Kathleen Newman, the governor’s legislative liaison, acted as the conduit for the analyses. In others, Richard Rosen, the governor’s budget commissioner, was copied on details of the negotiations.

Eves said in a written statement Wednesday that legislative leaders worked directly with the administration’s top staff, using data they provided to help put together a budget proposal.

“It is disingenuous for Gov. LePage to suggest that he was unaware of our detailed plans or goals when his top administrators and appointees were providing the analysis of the impact of each proposal,” Eves said. “They did their jobs and it helped craft a final budget which delivered more property tax relief, lowered the income tax, and invested in our students and workers.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the governor authorized Maine Revenue Services to conduct the analyses “in the spirit of cooperation.”

“We were not invited to the table during the final negotiations on the budget,” she said.

Bennett did not immediately respond to additional questions about why the governor allowed his staff to participate in a budget process that he found objectionable, or why he didn’t halt the analyses to force the discussions into public view.

STAFF ASSISTS UP TO LAST MINUTE

The emails and documents show that the administration’s attempt to work with legislative leaders began shortly after the governor unveiled his budget proposal and accompanying tax overhaul. Many Republicans, including Thibodeau, the Senate president, opposed LePage’s plan because it included sales tax increases and expanded the tax to goods and services that were exempt.

Those features were part of a tax reform package that the Republican Party worked to defeat in 2010.

Thibodeau would later become a target of a robocall campaign by the governor’s political apparatus that accused him of conspiring with Democrats to fund “illegal alien welfare” over tax cuts in a tentative budget agreement announced May 31. That deal, crafted by the Legislature’s budget committee through the traditional meeting process, remained largely intact as Republican leaders tried to negotiate a tax cut.

By June 4, the governor’s senior staff began producing new analyses that helped lawmakers complete the budget. On June 13, two days before the final deal was announced, Thibodeau’s chief of staff asked Newman, LePage’s legislative liaison, for new figures.

“You’re welcome,” Newman replied, attaching the latest analysis. “Will copy you in future (unless we hit the sweet spot with one of these!).”

Allen, LePage’s tax policy chief, delivered the final analysis to legislative leaders June 15. That same day, Newman forwarded a “cleaned up version” just hours before legislative leaders held private caucuses to explain the tax changes to rank and file legislators. Leadership announced that they had reached a compromise later that evening, and lawmakers enacted the budget the next day.

DIFFICULT BUDGET ‘OVERSHADOWED’

Thibodeau said Tuesday that the assistance from Allen and Maine Revenue Services was critical to helping leadership complete the budget talks.

The nature of the budget negotiations generated strong criticism from the media and was quickly seized upon by LePage. The day after the budget deal was announced, legislative leaders were confronted by State House media about whether lawmakers would know the details of a plan that they were being asked to vote on.

Thibodeau conceded that the final details of the budget were reached in private and he regrets that lawmakers didn’t share more information after the deal was struck. He said the tax plan and welfare elements – two of three major sticking points – were sensitive topics among their caucuses.

“The fact is that most budgets are spending plans,” Thibodeau said. “They don’t usually include big tax changes.”

Thibodeau said the governor’s repeated criticism of the negotiating process had “overshadowed much of the good in the budget.”

“The fact is that we reduced the income tax rate by a greater percentage than the Legislature did during the governor’s first term,” Thibodeau said. “Unfortunately, that’s not getting out there.”