Former finance chief Sawin Millett presented the governor’s two-year budget in 2013.

2 p.m. — Here we go again. Republicans on the budget writing committee and members of leadership are receiving their private briefing from the administration. That would appear to be a violation of Maine’s open meeting law because more than three members of a committee constitutes a legislative subcommittee. Carlisle McLean, the governor’s legal counsel, was asked to cite the provision in the Freedom of Access Act that allows this secret meeting. McLean said that the meeting was an executive branch function, not a legislative function, and therefore, not subject to FOAA. By the way, today is the statutory deadline for the governor to present his budget to the Legislature. I’m no lawyer, but that strikes me as a legislative function.

McLean’s explanation is not in the FOAA law, by the way. It’s just a justification for holding a public meeting in private. McLean said that the administration consulted with the Office of the Attorney General, which confirmed that this is all Ok.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the budget committee left the cabinet room via a backdoor entrance to the elevator. Democrats on the committee just entered the cabinet through another backdoor.

The state’s two-year budget is currently $6.3 billion of public money.

This business of closing meetings is an ongoing issue here. Here’s what happened in 2013 when the entire budget committee attempted to receive a private budget briefing. Sun Journal reporter Scott Thistle stopped that one.

1 p.m. — It’s pretty clear at this point that anyone who gets the budget briefing is under orders to not discuss the budget briefing. Assorted department heads are expected to receive an outline of the proposal throughout the afternoon, followed by a meeting with the leading members of the Legislature’s budget writing committee. Again, the press briefing isn’t until 3:30 p.m., so there may not be any substantive news to report until then.

This is what the budget looks like after it’s printed:


11:40 a.m. — The leaders briefing is over. They took the cabinet room side elevator to avoid the press gaggle. Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, stumbled into the fray before realizing that was the plan:

10:50 a.m. — Several legislative leaders have entered the governor’s cabinet room. There was no staff or assistant leaders. Meanwhile, some of the props have arrived for the afternoon press briefing. One of them cites the Tax Foundation and Maine’s business tax climate. In case you’re wondering, the Tax Foundation ranks Maine No. 29 based on levels of corporate taxes, individual income taxes, sales taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, and taxes on property, including residential and commercial property.

10:35 a.m — A couple of updates on the budget unveiling. It appears that the legislative leaders will be getting their briefing a little earlier than expected. Republican and Democratic leadership are expected to meet with the governor and his staff shortly.

The governor has already met with officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, including commissioner Mary Mayhew. Mayhew declined to offer any details, only a little humor. “It’s the best budget ever,” she joked.

LePage’s legislative liaison also met with Tim Walton, the lobbyist for the construction company Cianbro Corp., but it’s unclear if they discussed the budget or other legislative matters.

* * *

7 a.m. — The LePage administration will present the governor’s two-year budget Friday afternoon.

You might have heard about it.

If not, you soon will. Or, at least, a condensed, controlled version of it.

The release of the budget proposal is positioned for maximum spin. Leaders in the House and Senate are expected to receive briefings sometime around 2 p.m. (In 2013 this gathering was a clear violation of Maine’s open meeting law, so the entire budget committee probably won’t be there this time.). The media will receive the details sometime after that, probably 3:30 p.m. or later. The actual 700-page budget document, or bill, may not be posted until later that evening, so reporters and the public will initially receive the administration’s packaging and messaging, reaction from lawmakers and not much else.

State law determines when the governor has to present his budget to the Legislature. This year that happens to be on a Friday — not ideal for vetting.

* So what’s going to be in this thing? Lots. Count on it.

LePage dropped a big hint during his inaugural address that the budget will include some kind of income tax cut. We know that the governor wants to eliminate the state income tax, but he has also acknowledged that he probably can’t do it all at once. Even a modest reduction in the income tax $1.49 billion in annual revenue, however, will require significant spending cuts or revenue sources to pay for it — unless the proposal deploys a scheme that leaves some of those decisions to the next Legislature (Just like the 2011 tax cut did).

The governor has made vague references to how he might pay for a tax cut, eliminating tax exemptions for non-profits and broadening the sales tax base (eliminating exemptions for goods and services).

There was also this little tidbit that Mal Leary from MPBN snagged a couple of weeks ago: The governor wants to eliminate what’s known as the funding cascade. The cascade deals with excess revenues by dedicating surplus dollars, including money appropriated, but not spent, by state agencies.

LePage doesn’t like the cascade.

“The Legislature always puts a cascade at the end of every budget, so no matter how much you save they spend it before you can put it in the bank,” he told MPBN. “So I am trying to eliminate that this biennium.”

Eliminating the cascade just happens to be a prerequisite to a scheme advocated by tax cutting crusader Grover Norquist. In fact, Norquist was in Maine in December to push a plan that just so happens to reduce income tax rates over time by taking surplus revenues and devoting them specifically to ratcheting down the income tax. Here’s what he told the Maine Wire:

“It puts a cap on spending—you can’t spend more than 2% more each year,” he explained.  “So if revenue comes in beyond 2%, the money goes to reducing the income tax, and ratcheting it down.  Now, it’s a one way ratchet; it only ratchets down.  So if there’s a recession and you don’t do as well, it doesn’t go up.  It just sits there, and when you hit growth again it ratchets down.  So if nobody does anything odd, in 15 years the income tax is gone.” 

This type of plan was put into place by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback several years ago. The Kansas approach, once lauded by conservatives, has become a cautionary tale, however. A recent story in Politico detailed how Republican governors in other states are eyeing incremental tax cuts while creating safeguards to prevent the kind of revenue shortfalls  that Kansas is now facing.

* Word in the State House is that the beverage industry is going to take another stab at changing the state’s 38-year old bottle redemption law. The law has withstood a number of challenges by the beverage industry, which argues that the redemption law is costly to companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi and drives up prices for consumers. The industry in 1979 attempted to repeal the law during an unsuccessful referendum. It has also made a number of attempts to kill or alter the law since then.

The most recent was in 2011, when the industry backed a number of plans, including one that would exempt large bottles — 28-ounces or larger — from the redemption program. The industry argued that the larger bottles were particularly troublesome because the bottle take up a lot of space on the trucks that transport the bottles from the redemption centers to recycling facilities. The Republican-controlled Legislature killed the proposal amid widespread objections from environmentalists, redemption centers and towns. The latter argued that many rural towns didn’t have adequate recycling capacity, which environmentalists said would mean that the bottles would end up either in landfills or discarded on the side of the road. The redemption centers said any change to the bottle law would mean fewer jobs.

Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, the co-chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said that the beverage industry has a new proposal that attempts to address all of the opponents’ concerns. Saviello didn’t have all the details, but he said that Newell Augur, the lobbyist for the beverage association, told him about a proposal that would exempt the large containers from the law while setting up some kind of fund to help pay for increased recycling capacity.

Augur didn’t respond to requests for comment until late Thursday evening and didn’t provide any details, but Saviello said the proposal may have some merit. Rest assured, any attempt to change the law will garner attention, if not fierce opposition. Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine have defended the law since its inception.

Pete Didisheim, NRCM’s advocacy director, said in an email, “Maine’s bottle bill has been a huge success, which is why attempts to weaken it in the past have been defeated.  I’m quite confident that any bill to overturn or weaken Maine’s bottle bill this year also would face strong, bipartisan push-back.”

* The bottle bill, and many others, will soon see the light of day. Early reports from the Office of the Revisor of Statutes indicate that there are about 1,700 bill requests submitted this session. That includes the agency bills released in December. That means lawmakers have submitted approximately 1,500 bills for consideration.