AUGUSTA –– The Maine Legislature voted to extend its working session by five days Wednesday, giving lawmakers still grappling with a stalemate over education funding and income taxes more time to hammer out a two-year budget agreement and avert a government shutdown July 1.

The Legislature began meeting regularly in January, and Wednesday was the scheduled final day of its session.

Failure by the Legislature to reach a deal on an estimated $7 billion spending plan that can be enacted by June 30 will result in a partial government shutdown that would put thousands of state employees out of work without pay and have a widespread impact on the state’s residents. Non-essential services would be shut down, meaning everything from state parks to Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices could be closed because they won’t have funds to cover operations.

And the budget is just one of many issues that lawmakers still have before them, including a vote on how the state will conduct its elections beginning in 2018. Voters approved a ballot question in November making Maine the first state in the nation to move to a ranked-choice voting system for all statewide elections, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has issued an opinion that parts of the measure violate the state constitution.

Other measures pending in the State House include the implementation of another voter-approved law that legalized the possession and commercial sale of recreational marijuana. Also still on the table is a bill that restores the state’s tip credit to the minimum wage law. That’s also in response to a ballot question approved last November to increase the minimum wage and end the tip credit.

Taxpayers will bear the cost of extending the legislative session. Although lawmakers will receive no pay for their overtime, they will be reimbursed for travel expenses and receive per-diem meal allowances. The cost of travel and meals for a five-day extension would be $94,600, according to the office of the executive director of the Legislature.

The vote to extend the session comes as Gov. Paul LePage increases his pressure on the Legislature to enact reforms to the way the state funds public schools and to lower the personal income tax. The governor’s budget, submitted to the Legislature in January, does both things and more, but Democrats and Republicans, who hold a nearly equal number of seats in the Legislature, have been unable to find common ground on the budget. Passing a budget is the only thing the Legislature is constitutionally mandated to achieve during its nearly six-month lawmaking session.

In a twist to the budget negotiations saga, the Senate on Wednesday honored former state Sen. Richard Rosen, a Republican from Bucksport, with an official sentiment praising his years of public service. Rosen most recently served as the state’s finance commissioner, LePage’s top budget officer. Rosen abruptly resigned last week as budget discussions unfolded, raising questions about whether he was forced out by LePage.

Rosen declined to comment on why he stepped down, saying only that he had submitted a letter of resignation to LePage. Rosen would not say whether LePage requested his resignation, but he did express confidence that the Legislature would reach a deal on the state budget.

“I think they are going to be committed to success, and success will be presenting the Legislature with one unified budget, success will be delivering that to the governor’s desk with a two-thirds vote, and I believe the Legislature is committed to achieving that outcome,” Rosen said.

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Rosen was consistently even-tempered as he “always tried to do the right thing” in ways that were respectful of others.

“Our state is a better place to live and work because of his service,” Thibodeau said.

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, issued a warning to lawmakers in that chamber Wednesday that she intended to enforce the House rules for decorum during the waning days of their work, when lawmakers often tackle the toughest issues and partisan passions are at their highest.

Among other things, Gideon said she would strictly enforce a House rule that prohibits members from taking photos or videos of themselves or each other from the floor of the House, reminding them that they voted 104-42 to support that prohibition.

“I have asked the same things of my own caucus this morning, that we all sort of dig deep inside of us in those moments when we feel most challenged in our debate and make sure that we are not questioning the motives of other people,” she said. “This is one area where I will be very, very strictly enforcing and interrupting members if that happens, and I just want people to know that is the case.”

Gideon’s speech highlighted the frustration and pressure that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are facing as they hope to avert a government shutdown while finishing other important work.

Some of that frustration could be seen between the lines of a Twitter exchange Wednesday between Gideon and LePage, who was attending an event in Belfast. LePage’s account tweeted that “these folks would like to know where the budget is,” to which Gideon replied: “Budget coming. Will you pledge to act immediately and avoid shutdown?”

From LePage’s account came the answer: “You just extended the session five days. The clock has been ticking since Jan. since I presented the budget.”

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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