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February 24, 2013

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-Berwick

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

So much for the kumbaya moment.

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."

Keep in mind, with the battle lines already drawn between Democrats' calls for "tax fairness" and Republicans' insistence on "reduced spending," that no one has said a shutdown isn't a possibility.

In fact, should LePage impose an across-the-board veto on the budget and either the House or the Senate fails to muster the bipartisan, two-thirds votes needed to override, a shutdown goes from the possible to the downright probable.

"That's the fine point that we're talking about," Fredette said. "We're talking about that critical point where the Legislature passes a budget and the governor vetoes it. What happens then?"

Not an unreasonable question. Nor is it one that can be answered four months in advance.

So why, at this early stage, toss it like a lit match into the political tinderbox?

"My job as leader is to talk about the possibilities," Fredette replied. "The key is making sure that doesn't happen."

Good luck with that, Mr. Minority Leader.

Truth be told, the more Fredette tosses around the "s" word now, the better its chance of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. With their own leader already talking shutdown, what's to stop the House Republican rank-and-file (not to mention the Democrats) from simply sitting back and waiting for the inevitable?

Worse yet will be the verdict from the court of public opinion should Maine relive the nightmare of 1991: While protests raged throughout the State House that summer, a budget standoff between Republican Gov. John McKernan and a Democratically controlled Legislature shut down much of Augusta for 16 endless days.

Anything close to that, come the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, will lead to one pivotal question from the masses: Who started it?

And the answer, dating all the way back to that Feb. 22 TV appearance by Fredette, will be the Republicans.

"Nobody wants this to be a successful process more than me," Fredette promised. "It's incumbent on all of us to make sure (a shutdown) doesn't happen."

So do us all a favor and stop yapping about it.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com



House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport



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