Monday February 03, 2014 | 08:41 PM

(Updated Tuesday at 10:02 a.m. with response from Democratic leaders)

State House truism: The budget writing committee, officially known as the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, doesn't play politics. At least publicly.

Except, of course, when it does.

The idea that the panel responsible for writing and passing the state budgets doesn't engage in the typical partisan jousting is rooted in the fact that the panel, more often than not, has to negotiate budgets that appeal to both parties. That would be a difficult job if the committee members were ripping each other in the press all the time. 

So they don't do that. Not usually. 

Monday evening was one of those rare occasions when the committee "broke up," to paraphrase State House parlance. Details are a bit fuzzy, but the dispute centers on L.R. 2721 a proposal that would forestall a $40 million cut in municipal revenue sharing by, at least as originally proposed, reducing or eliminating an identical amount in tax breaks (Note the "L.R." More on that later). But on Monday, Democrats on the committee voted out a bill that would prevent the revenue sharing cut by tapping the state's rainy day fund and income tax relief fund.

Both funding mechanisms are likely non-starters for Republicans, which may be why none were there for the vote. Actually, it's not clear why the Republicans weren't there.

According to Democratic press statements and tweets, Republicans "refused" vote on the bill, or they "took a walk." Democrats also sent out statements that said they "kept their promise" to Maine's municipalities, while noting that Republicans were absent.

Meanwhile, according to Republican press statements, the Democrats on the panel told their Republican colleagues that they weren't voting until Tuesday, but waited until they left and went ahead and did it anyway. The headline in the Maine House GOP release began with "disgrace;" the GOP Senate release said it was a "stunning maneuver." Republicans also sent out photos and a video of the Democrats voting on the proposal.

As a practical and procedural matter, whether or not the Republicans were present Monday night doesn't matter. That's because lawmakers who weren't there have until noon on Wednesday to have their votes recorded, according to the joint rules of the Legislature. In other words, Monday's vote isn't done. 

And neither are the politics. 

The background of all of this is that Democrats and Republicans last year couldn't agree on ways to avoid cutting $40 million in revenue sharing, so they effectively agreed to postpone the negotiation until this year knowing that the state would likely have some kind of budget shortfall to address this session.

Democrats pushed forward with a budget-mandated study commission to avoid the cut by either expanding the sales tax base or by reviewing and potentially eliminating tax cuts for businesses.

Republicans, including House minority leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, made it  clear that they didn't like that approach and kept their distance. When the study commission briefly floated the idea of eliminating the sales tax exemption on amusements and hair cuts, Republicans jumped in to call the idea a "fun tax." 

The panel's final recommendations came in the form of L.R. 2721. It's not even a bill yet. It could end up one, but it's more likely that it will become part of the supplemental budget bill, which is where all of the negotiations are headed -- and likely behind closed doors.

So what was all the noise about on Monday? Maybe Republicans on the committee really did take a walk. Maybe the Democrats really did decide to vote without them.

Or maybe the two sides were at a stalemate and the whole exercise of voting/not voting was to force the negotiations along by having a dispute that the public normally doesn't see.

Or maybe the budget-writing committee "break up" is more longterm than usual.

* * *

Update @ 10:02 a.m. -- House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, released a joint statement Tuesday morning responding to Republican claims that the committee vote was a "surprise." Alfond and Eves said such claims were "not true."

“Democratic committee members proudly took their vote yesterday; a vote that keeps the state’s 40 year promise and will help prevent massive property tax spikes and cuts to essential services," said Alfond. "In this business, you have to stand up and be counted. And the Republicans didn’t do that. Worse, they lied. We expect to have policy disagreements but not this: they have disparaged the integrity of many hard working lawmakers and we cannot sit quietly as they attempt to do so. Mainers are counting on us to work together and do better.”

Democrats also provided a timeline of the process leading up to Monday's vote. Pasted below:

* On January 6, Democrats notified Republicans that they would bring forward a proposal to keep Maine’s commitment to cities and town.  Democrats publicly announced the bill proposal.

* On January 13, Democrats announced the details of the proposal to the public.

* On January 22, a public hearing on the bill, LR 2721, was held.  Hundreds of people attended urging strong support for restoring cuts.

* On January 30 at 4:15 p.m. in the Speaker’s Office, Presiding Officers met with Republican leaders to discuss the timeline of this bill and other budgetary issues. At the conclusion of the meeting, leaders agreed that the revenue sharing bill would be voted on as quickly as possible.

* On February 3 at 4 p.m., a publicly noticed work session on the bill was on the schedule. A vote and public discussion on the bill was planned. Legislative leaders met in the Senate President’s office to confirm that the bill would be voted on that afternoon.

Democratic Appropriations Chairs met with their Republican counterparts to inform them that bill would move forward as planned and the vote would be held that afternoon. As Democratic lawmakers gathered around the horseshoe to go on microphone at 5:30p.m., many Republican committee members left.

* * *

Update at 12:45 p.m., the final one for this post

Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, told the Portland Press Herald Tuesday that the governor would veto the Democratic-approved proposal if it made it to his desk. Additionally, the governor is vowing to withhold issuing all bonds if such a plan were to somehow get around his veto.

The reason for withholding bonds is because the administration has repeatedly warned that drawing down the rainy day fund would impact the state's credit rating. While Democrats have noted that Republicans have proposed tapping the fund before, that doesn't change the fact that Moody's Investor Service advised against doing so in its 2013 review of Maine's rating. 

Last year Moody’s Investor Service assigned the state a negative outlook, in part because it had a “minimal” rainy day fund. Rebuilding the fund would improve the state’s bond rating, according to Moody’s 2013 analysis.

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Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.

Steve can be reached at 791-6345 or smistler@pressherald.com.
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