June 21, 2013

Maine AG: Continuing resolution may be unconstitutional

Janet Mills' letter to lawmakers say the governor's proposed 60-day temporary budget would likely result in lawsuits.

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage called on lawmakers Thursday to sign off on a 60-day spending fix to buy time to negotiate a new budget that doesn't raise taxes, but state Attorney General Janet Mills called into question the legality of a temporary budget.

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Mills said in a letter to lawmakers that Maine's constitution requires a balanced budget and that continuing the current budget would result in an unbalanced spending plan.

She said Maine law requires a two-year budget and even if it didn't, passing a temporary emergency budget would "throw the state into financial uncertainty and would face significant opposition from bondholders, school, hospitals" and others. She predicted a temporary budget would spark lawsuits.

Lawmakers finished nearly all of their work for the session early Thursday morning, passing a slew of bills and sending them to the governor's desk. They already were prepared to reconvene next week to respond to LePage's anticipated veto to their budget bill before the governor called Thursday for a temporary fix.

LePage's administration said state law allows a short-term emergency measure, if passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

"The Maine Constitution requires the State to not spend more than the amount of revenue it takes in — a short-term budget is constitutional," LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in an email. "A short-term budget would authorize spending only for the expenses necessary to operate State government for a limited period of time, avoiding a shutdown."

At a rally earlier at the State House Hall of Flags, LePage announced to cheers that he would veto the two-year budget passed by the Legislature and called upon lawmakers to pass a 60-day continuing resolution to buy time to negotiate a new budget.

"The budget raises taxes on hardworking Maine families. I am here to tell you I will veto this budget," he said during an Americans For Prosperity rally dubbed "Don't Overtax ME." Behind him, the group held signs that said "Veto the budget!" and "Less taxes, less government, more freedom."

Democrats said the attorney general's letter shows that the governor's proposal was merely a stunt aimed at trying to convince fellow Republicans to sustain his veto.

"It is clear that the governor's 'continuing resolution' is nothing more than a Washington-style political gimmick," said Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall of Sagahock.

Democrats said they don't need a temporary budget because they are confident they can override LePage's veto next week, before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. The budget passed in both chambers with the two-thirds majority that is necessary to override a veto.

The bipartisan budget lawmakers sent to LePage's desk last week would temporarily increase Maine's 5 percent sales tax by a half-cent and temporarily raise the meals and lodging tax from 7 to 8 percent, generating roughly an additional $170 million over two years.

Democrats said the increases were designed to avert steep property tax hikes that would result from a two-year suspension of revenue-sharing to Maine municipalities, which LePage had proposed in his original budget.

LePage said a short-term fix would ensure that state employees don't lose their jobs while avoiding an "unnecessary tax increase." He asked Maine residents to call their lawmakers and encourage them to support his proposal.

"Democrats have been saying for months and putting fear into people that there is a pending shutdown of government," he said. "That's how they get weak Republicans to cave."

Assistant Democratic Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash said the 60-day fix is "something that we don't need to talk about right now."

"I think the Republicans definitely understand what's at stake here," he said.

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