February 24, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Just when legislators are playing nice … a curveball

So much for the kumbaya moment.

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House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick

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House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport

Just one day after Maine lawmakers reached across the aisle and overwhelmingly passed a $153 million adjustment to the state's current two-year budget, the House Republican minority leader couldn't resist the urge to drop the "s" bomb.

As in "government shutdown."

Which, according to Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, could soon be coming to a State House near you.

"There is going to be a real battle on (the next) biennial budget and quite frankly a government shutdown is something that's a possibility," Fredette warned WCSH's Pat Callaghan on Friday during an appearance with House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick, on the news-talk segment "The Arena."

How encouraging. Bipartisan budget negotiations haven't even reached the throat-clearing stage, and the House's top Republican has already leapfrogged over "let's make a deal" all the way to "assume the crash position."

Surprised? Speaker Eves sure was.

Friday morning, just before heading up to WCSH, a noticeably upbeat Eves stopped by the Portland Press Herald for a short visit.

He talked about how Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have been meeting regularly for dinner – and having a good time getting better acquainted.

He predicted that the good will generated by Thursday's easy passage of the supplemental budget (unanimous in the Senate, 129-14 in the House) will now segue into a spirited-but-civil debate over Gov. Paul LePage's $6.1 billion proposed spending package for the next two fiscal years.

"I'm optimistic," Eves said before hurrying up Congress Street for his televised tete-a-tete with Fredette.

Then, with the cameras rolling less than an hour later, he got sandbagged.

One minute, host Callaghan was asking about the upcoming budget negotiations. The next, Fredette was talking doomsday scenario.

Fredette's "shutdown" speculation prompted predictable outrage from the Maine Democratic Party, whose chairman, Ben Grant, immediately fired off a news release accusing the minority leader of "John Boehner-style negotiating tactics" not only during his Portland TV appearance, but also in an interview with WZON radio in Bangor earlier the same day.

More significantly, Fredette's forecast left Eves, in a telephone interview later in the day, rethinking his own vision of the coming weeks around the appropriations table.

"It was jarring. Didn't see it coming," Eves said. "This is going to be a difficult task and we need to allow people to do the work they need to do. If anybody is mentioning state shutdown, much less the leader of the House Republicans, it's going to be very difficult to get work done."

Meaning this changes things?

"If he continues this line, I think it certainly does," Eves replied. "How can it not?"

Contacted at his home Saturday, Fredette, an attorney by profession, said his inner lawyer made him do it.

"Any time I sit and talk with a client, I have to tell my client what the possibilities are," he explained. "You have to give your clients all the possibilities."

Problem is, we're not talking about "Perry Mason" here, where the best possibility – fairness and justice for all – invariably carries the day.

We're talking politics, where one misplaced word can derail an entire debate.

Noted Eves, whose speakership so far has been a study in decorum, "You do have to measure your words very carefully, especially as a leader. You speak for the entire caucus and for the larger party as well. And I think it's reckless and irresponsible to be using that kind of language."

Back to Fredette: "What I'm saying is I don't want to see a state shutdown – I clearly don't want to see that. But is it a possibility? For someone to say it isn't is reckless."

(Continued on page 2)

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