Monday, March 10, 2014
A few notes while waiting for the next battle between Gov. Paul LePage and the Democratic-controlled Legislature . . .
Actually, it's looking we won't have to wait that long.
On Wednesday Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, released a joint statement dinging the governor for his recent comments to the Sun Journal that he won't draft a supplemental budget next year.
There are supplemental budgets nearly every year -- sometimes more than one -- as state revenues fail to meet expectations or expenditures within an agency are higher than expected (Hello, Department of Health and Human Services). When that happens, the governor can either issue a curtailment order to cut state spending or draft a budget, a supplemental budget, to ensure that the state's finances are balanced, as the Constitution requires.
But LePage is saying that he won't do that. Here's what he told the SJ:
"The governor will not put up a supplemental budget. I will not. ... We have had six supplementals in three years, and (legislators) call it balanced budgets. The 2014-15 budget is not balanced."
The governor went on to blame lawmakers for the two-year budget and for overriding his veto of the $6.3 billion spending plan. Alfond and Eves on Wednesday hit back, saying if revenues are down, it's LePage who is to blame.
"Unfortunately, Governor LePage’s economic policies have not helped Maine swing out of this economic downturn. In fact, so far, it’s made him the third worst governor in the country for putting people back to work,” Alfond said in a statement.
So what's going here?
LePage and Republicans are trying to make it clear that the current two-year budget is the product of the Democratic majority in the Legislature. It doesn't matter that a downward projection of revenues may well have existed if lawmakers passed the governor's budget (Remember, the projection is a revenue shortfall, not a budget shortfall -- there's a difference.). It doesn't matter that Republican votes were required to pass the Legislature's alternative $6.3 billion spending plan. It includes temporary tax increases. Now, potentially, there's a revenue shortfall. Therefore, it's the Democratic majority who owns the budget.
That's the message.
Democrats, who were in the minority in the previous Legislature used a similar strategy in 2012 against a tax cut package included in the previous two-year budget; last year they campaigned against the tax cut package even though many Democrats voted for it.
Republicans are already messaging this in letters and op-ed pieces, like this one from Senate minority leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport (Thibodeau voted against the budget). LePage has taken it a step further, telling the SJ, "They overrode my veto, and therefore they have inherited this budget and they need to figure out a way to balance it."
It's unclear if the budget will become a campaign issue in 2014, but both parties and the governor are acting as if it could, which is probably why there's so much noise about it right now. It's the same situation with Medicaid expansion.
As a practical matter, the Legislature could move without LePage and balance the budget on its own. It wouldn't be easy, especially since it would require full cooperation from the state agency heads that are appointed by LePage (And we know how that sometimes goes.). However, lawmakers won't be able to begin that work until the revenue numbers are solidified by the Revenue Forecasting Committee in late November.
Unti then, early projections of a $6.7 million revenue shortfall are just that: Early.
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Independent Eliot Cutler launched his gubernatorial bid Tuesday and already there's an interesting response from the Maine Democratic Party.
Party chairman Ben Grant wrote on his blog Wednesday that Democrats should stop calling Cutler a "spoiler" or asking him to drop out of the race.
"It’s time to retire this term, and the questions it elicits. I know for a fact that there is a lot of anxiety among the electorate about a split vote that allows Paul LePage to win a second term. It’s understandable, and it’s a powerful motivator. However, confronting Cutler, or a Cutler-ophile, with the direct question about running/not running serves no purpose anymore. It’s a moot point, and worse, it allows Cutler to assume one of his more powerful postures: victimhood."
Grant's probably right that the well-worn spoiler narrative will do little to discourage Cutler from abandoning his Blaine House bid. Also, Cutler's respons to such questions -- “smacks of desperation sprinkled with entitlement” -- sound damaging.
* * *
One more note on Cutler's campaign, which may have a few things it didn't have in 2010.
1. Outside money: Cutler's already receiving donations from out-of-state donors, as are the other candidates. However, independent candidates don't typically have the benefit of a party machine, outside groups -- known as 527s or political action committees -- to bolster their candidacy in statewide races.
That changed for Angus King in 2012, when he received a ton of outside help from independent PACs and groups like icPurple and Americans Elect, not to mention Michael Bloomberg. All came to King's defense as he endured withering attacks from Republican-backed groups.
Cutler could receive some of that same assistance. Ted O'Meara, his campaign manager, said Tuesday that the 2014 gubernatorial race was attracting interest from groups that promote independent candidates.
That could mean Americans Elect. That could mean Bloomberg, whose independent status -- and views on gun control -- have some alignment with Cutler's.
2. Ground game: Cutler didn't have much of one in 2010, particularly in the 2nd Congressional District, where LePage, backed by a party apparatus, was able to find an advantage in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.
That may change in 2014. Brandon Maheu, who previously conducted ground operations for the Maine Democratic Party, joined Cutler's campaign this year. Maheu said Tuesday that it will be his job to coordinate GOTV.
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.