AUGUSTA — Lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage continued a high-stakes political dispute over the state budget Tuesday, trading blame for stalled negotiations as Maine inched toward the first government shutdown in a quarter-century.

The day began with LePage publicly doubting whether the Legislature will reach a deal on the state’s next two-year budget by month’s end, thereby triggering a partial shutdown of state government.

“I’m making plans,” LePage told a Bangor radio station. “I believe we are going to shut down Friday night.”

Ninety minutes later, members of the special committee formed to negotiate a deal expressed their frustrations even as they pledged to continue discussions to avoid closing state offices starting Saturday.

Gov. LePage: “I’m the worst guy to play chicken with … I don’t veer. … I go straight ahead.”

“It feels embarrassing and unconscionable to me, as the speaker of the House, to be in that position and to put the people of Maine and state employees in that position,” said House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, during a grim-faced meeting of the six-member committee.

The mood inside the State House was decidedly gloomy among lawmakers and the sizable crowd of unionized state workers who rallied to avoid the first shutdown since 1991.

House Republican lawmakers balked Tuesday at Gideon’s offer to hold an up-or-down vote on their proposal that would repeal the 3 percent tax surcharge on wealthy Mainers, create a voluntary statewide teacher contract program and eliminate hundreds of unfilled positions in state government. The proposal faced certain defeat because the $125 million in additional education funding is nearly $200 million less than the anticipated amount that the 3 percent surcharge would raise and $75 million less than the most recent Democratic counteroffer.

House Speaker Sara Gideon: “It feels embarrassing and unconscionable to me.”

“I just do not understand why would we move a (bill) out from this committee that doesn’t have buy-in from all four caucuses and the chief executive’s office,” said Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, explaining why House Republicans had stopped pushing for a vote on their bill.

‘PLAYING CHICKEN,’ FRAYED NERVES

Meanwhile, LePage cast a large shadow over the negotiations, even though lawmakers could enact a budget without his support by once again overriding his veto. Gideon said the governor told her on two occasions last week that he would exercise his right to hold the budget for 10 days – thereby triggering a government shutdown – unless Democrats send him a budget he supports. And LePage hinted again Tuesday that he has no plans to back down from the political fight as his administration prepares for a potential shutdown.

“They are playing chicken with me, and I’m the worst guy to play chicken with,” LePage told the George Hale-Ric Tyler radio show on Bangor’s WVOM-FM. “I don’t veer on either way, I go straight ahead, so if there is a collision to be had it’s coming Friday night.”

Listen to Gov. LePage on WVOM:

Budget conferees all pledged to work together as they ended their public meeting, but there clearly were frayed nerves – after weeks of unsuccessful, closed-door negotiations – and no clear path forward.

“This is not a game,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, whose district includes large numbers of state employees. “This is having a real impact on human beings, and that includes thousands of state employees.”

The voter-approved 3 percent tax surcharge on earnings above $200,000 remains the largest sticking point in the budget, although the parties also disagree on the estate tax, welfare for immigrants and other issues.

Under the Maine constitution, state government shuts down if the Legislature and governor don’t pass and sign a budget by June 30. If a shutdown occurs, LePage said he would use his executive powers to keep some operations going to protect state properties and allow the state to continue to collect tax revenues. He said state parks would remain open because he was concerned about vandalism. He also said public safety would be a priority and state law enforcement officers likely would be deemed essential.

Speaking during his weekly call-in to WVOM, LePage said he has asked lawmakers since January to do no harm to the state’s economy. But Republicans and Democrats are at an impasse over how to increase funding to public schools and address a tax surcharge that opponents say is harming businesses and driving wealthier Mainers out of state.

CONCESSIONS, DEMANDS, PASSIONS

The governor said he has moved his top line on spending for the budget from $6.8 billion to $7.05 billion, but Democratic negotiators want spending in the range of $7.2 billion. LePage also said he wants the next budget to include substantial education reforms, including a policy moving Maine toward a statewide contract for all public school teachers and encouraging school districts to save money by sharing administrative and management functions.

“I’ve tried, I’ve worked very, very hard, but what they want is impossible to deliver, without hurting our state for a decade,” LePage said. “They just want to break the backs of the Maine people, and I can’t let it happen under my watch.”

He said legislative leaders have asked him about the cost of a shutdown, and he said his answer is simple: “The future of Maine, the future of Maine is worth shutting it down.”

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, estimated that the parties are only $40 million apart and said it would be “a travesty” to allow a shutdown over such a small difference in a $7 billion budget.

“I know that we are all passionate about our positions and there is nothing wrong with that,” Thibodeau said. “But we should not allow our passion about our positions to keep us from coming together to solve this problem over the next 24 to 48 hours.”

Despite his role in the high-stakes budget negotiations, LePage left Tuesday afternoon for Washington, D.C., to meet Wednesday with President Trump and other Republican governors on energy issues and the opioid crisis.

As part of the budget negotiations, LePage appears to be reviving his demands to allow towns to collect property taxes from land trusts and other nonprofits that hold large tracts of property. He also revealed some of the other sticking points among negotiators, and said that while he agreed to a one-quarter-point increase in the state sales, he would do that only if the Legislature eliminated Maine’s estate tax and allowed state government to at least study how much property had been removed from the tax rolls for nonprofits such as land trusts.

He said Maine’s Democratic Party was “a wholly owned subsidiary” of several advocacy groups, including the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine Education Association teachers union, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine Municipal Association.

GETTING DOWN TO THE END GAME

“They just don’t care about the Maine taxpayer,” LePage said. The governor later used Facebook, his weekly radio address and his press office to accuse Democrats of holding the budget “hostage” and urge Mainers to contact their lawmakers.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Gideon said lawmakers have no choice but to deliver a budget bill to LePage by Friday. She said it was “unconscionable” to her that LePage would even consider shutting down government if lawmakers send him a budget.

“I am going to choose to believe that he will do the right thing when he has a budget on his desk,” Gideon said. “If he cannot sign it into law, I hope that he will veto it immediately and give legislators the opportunity to make sure that government continues to function in the state of Maine.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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