March 25, 2013

A trip into hostile budget territory, and two bills that may be a stretch

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

It's been several years since the Legislature's budget-writing committee held a public hearing outside of the State House.

When that happened, lawmakers simply moved the proceedings across town to the Augusta Civic Center.

On Monday, the committee will go a bit farther -- about 80 miles north to Brewer.

Distance isn't the only difference between previous budget hearings and the one that will take place Monday at Jeff's Catering and Event Center.

In 1991, lawmakers held proceedings at the civic center in order to accommodate the large crowd expected to testify against then-Gov. John McKernan's plan to balance the state's budget, a proposal loaded with cuts, including the elimination of 529 state jobs. They did it under Gov. John Baldacci, too, to accommodate large crowds protesting cuts to social services. 

Gov. Paul LePage's $6.3 billion budget proposal is also widely unpopular, particularly his plan to suspend municipal aid for two years and merge two business reimbursement tax schemes.

But the budget committee already held a public hearing on that portion of the governor's budget. It took place March 13.

On Monday, the panel will revisit the municipal aid issue. And they'll do it in a city where elected officials have already formally expressed their opposition.

On March 18, the Brewer City Council adopted a resolution opposing the budget. That same day, the House Democratic Office announced that the budget committee was taking its show on the road.

In prepared statements, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said that Brewer would be particularly hard-hit. City officials have estimated that the governor's budget would take $1.28 million from city coffers.

It's not uncommon for other committees to travel off-site. The Workforce and Economic Future panel has done so this session, and the regulatory reform committee did it in 2011.

Those road trips have generated a fair amount of media attention for generally positive reform efforts for which Republicans and Democrats could claim credit.

That's a much different scenario than the one lawmakers are getting into today. In Brewer, the only credit to be had appears to be opposing LePage's budget.

That won't be hard for Democrats. It's a different story for Republicans.

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, House minority leader, said Republicans would "rather the majority party not spend extra money to hold this hearing when we've already done it for free at the State House." However, he said, Republicans on the committee will be there.


The Blaine House mansion features a warm sunroom, a fully furnished family dining room, a reception area large enough to hold events for dignitaries, several bathrooms and separate quarters for your staff. It sits on 2.39 acres of land. And the view? How about the State House!

All of that could be yours if a bill by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, passes the Legislature and, somehow, avoids the governor's veto pen.

No, it's not a joke.

Russell's bill, L.D. 858, is called "An Act To Partially Fund Tax Breaks for the Wealthy by Eliminating Certain Gubernatorial Benefits."

The proposal would strip the governor of his retirement benefits and pension. It would also allow the state's finance commissioner to sell the Blaine House and divert the proceeds to the General Fund.

It's likely that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission would have a problem with selling the governor's mansion, which has been the chief executive's residence since 1919.

(Continued on page 2)

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