June 13, 2013

LePage says he prefers shutdown over budget plan

BY STEVE MISTLER

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage told a television station Wednesday that he preferred a shutdown of state government over the bipartisan $6.3 billion budget crafted by lawmakers.

"I think a shutdown is less painful and less damaging than signing a bad budget," LePage told WCSH-6 during an interview in Damariscotta.

LePage added that the budget proposal unanimously by the Legislature's budget-writing committee was a "bad document" and "horrific." The governor's comments came as lawmakers prepare to vote on the state's two-year spending plan and enact it before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The state constitution requires a balanced budget in order to keep state government running.

The governor's remarks also came as LePage's close political allies are urging Republican lawmakers to stand with the governor and reject a deal that has received the approval of legislative leadership in both parties.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, hope enough Republicans will vote for the compromise budget to garner two-thirds support, the threshold required to override a veto.

LePage's remarks were quickly blasted by Democratic leaders Senate President Justin Alfond, of Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, of North Berwick.

Both said the governor's comments were irresponsible, but not surprising.

"We've seen a pattern of behavior from the governor that when he doesn't get what he wants, he threatens and intimidates and issues ultimatums," Eves said.

Alfond said the governor was sending the wrong message to approximately 10,000 state workers that could lose paychecks if government is shutdown.

"To me it just showcases how out of touch this governor is with working men and women in the state of Maine," Alfond said.

"It's tourism season," he added. "What kind of message does it send when the governor says he wants to shutdown state government rather than supporting a compromise budget? It's the wrong message to be sending, not only to tourists, but businesses who want to come here."

LePage has previously indicated that he'll veto the budget. The governor has also said he'll take the full 10 days allowed by law to review the budget.

Eves said the governor should veto the budget as soon as it hits his desk so that the Legislature can pass it without him.

"The absurdity of this whole scenario is that if he's going to veto it, why take the 10 days?" Eves said. "I'm calling on the governor to veto the bill. If he's going to do it, he should do it. He should not take 10 days and get us to the cliff of shutdown, which is what he's begging for."

During his weekly radio message he promised to veto any budget that includes tax increases.

The budget passed by the Appropriations Committee last week contains a temporary sales tax increase, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and a 1 percent increase in the meals and lodging tax, from 7 percent to 8 percent. Both sunset at the end of the biennium.

Both tax increases were designed to fill a $400 million budget gap created by the tax cut package the Legislature passed in 2011 but not paid for.

LePage's budget, released in January, was designed to protect the tax cut.

Critics of his plan say LePage's budget proposal claim it contained a $400 million tax increase because of a two-year suspension of municipal aid and changes to other tax programs designed to provide property tax relief.

LePage's budget also contained an income tax increase would have raised the tax bill of the average Mainer by $39 over the next two years. The increase was driven by a change in inflation indexing to what's known as chained consumer price indexing. The subtle but substantive change would have generated more than $8.6 million in income tax collections over the two fiscal years beginning July 1.

The Appropriations Committee rejected the proposal.

It's unclear if legislative leaders can hold the compromise budget together.

House Republican leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, of Newport, told the Press Herald last week that his caucus members needed to answer to their constituents. He added that the budget proposal was also likely the best deal either side could expect in divided government.

Alfond and Eves were asked Wednesday if they were confident the deal would survive. Both noted that leaders from both parties signed off on the compromise when it was reached during the early morning hours last Friday.

Eves said the deal was a "gentleman's handshake," adding that it would be unprecedented for a budget passed unanimously in committee not to receive two-thirds support. A failure to achieve that threshold this time would show "a serious lack of leadership," Eves said. "The ultimate decision for every Republican is, are you going to stand with the governor and support his reckless, irresponsible budget? Or are you going to stand with your community and the people of Maine?"

Alfond was hopeful.

"I think he (LePage) has trapped himself," he said. "Our job is to work with our Republican colleagues to get two-third votes in the Senate and House."

The budget could come for a vote today.

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