AUGUSTA — Democratic leaders in the Maine Legislature on Wednesday urged Republican Gov. Paul LePage to veto the budget bill so they can act quickly to override the veto and keep state government open.
LePage told a television reporter Wednesday that a state government shutdown was better than a bad budget.
"I think a shutdown is less painful and less damaging than signing a bad budget," LePage said in an interview with WCSH. He called the budget proposal "horrific."
LePage has been signaling for the past several days that he would veto the budget, including saying in his radio address on Saturday that if the budget raises taxes, he will veto it.
The budget bill headed for his desk does increase the state's sales tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent and the state's meals and lodging tax from 7 to 8 percent. Both increases would sunset in 2016, but LePage has said for months he wouldn't support any tax increase. On Wednesday, the message on the television LePage has placed in an interior window of his State House office repeated the message, "No New Taxes."
Lawmakers on the Legislature's Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee unanimously approved a $6.3 billion state spending package Tuesday that eliminates about 60 percent of the $400 million in cuts to cities and towns that LePage had proposed in his budget package.
During a brief meeting with the State House press corps Wednesday, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, were confident they had the votes to override a LePage veto.
Eves essentially asked LePage to go ahead and veto the budget as soon as he gets it. The final draft of the document was still in the process of being printed by the Legislature's Revisor's Office on Wednesday, but Eves and Alfond said they expected the Legislature to have the measured passed by week's end.
"I think we've seen a pattern of behavior from the governor that when he doesn't get what he wants, he uses threats, intimidation, ultimatums to try and persuade votes," Eves said. "What we have is a responsible budget, a bipartisan budget that prevents a massive property-tax hike. What we have is a unanimous vote out of Appropriations to balance the budget in a responsible way."
Lawmakers from both parties on the committee hailed the package as a compromise, saying neither side was getting all it wanted, and while they were happy with the bipartisan work achieved, neither side was happy with all of the results.
Among other things, the LePage proposal suspends state revenue-sharing with towns to provide a balanced budget that doesn't increase state taxes.
Towns and cities have reacted, saying under LePage's proposal they would either have to drastically reduce services or raise local property taxes to make up the loss.
Democrats have said LePage simply pushed the state's financial shortfall onto the backs of local property taxpayers, but the governor's office has been adamant that the elected leaders of cities and towns in Maine can decide whether to raise property taxes.
Alfond said the prospect of LePage's threat to shut down state government just as Maine goes into its busy tourism season was untenable. He said a shutdown would leave more than 10,000 state employees with no pay and no way to pay their bills.
"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 also showcases to me how out of touch this governor is with how important tourism is to our state."
Alfond said millions of people visit Maine in the summer months, "and what message does it send when the chief executive of the state of Maine says, 'I want to shut down the state,' rather than supporting a compromise bipartisan message?"
To override a veto, Democrats need at least eight Republicans to join forces with them in the House and three in the Senate. Four Republicans in the House serve on the Appropriations Committee and already have voted in favor of the budget when it passed from the committee Tuesday.
Republican leaders were noncommittal Wednesday on the level of support for the budget or the appetite for overriding a LePage veto.
According to the Maine Constitution, LePage has 10 days to veto the budget, sign it or allow it to become law without his signature.
House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said lawmakers had to respect the governor's rights as chief executive under the constitution.
"We have to react as the Legislature to whatever decision of his that he makes," Fredette said.
He couldn't say where the caucus was as a whole on the budget or a potential veto override vote. He also wouldn't comment on whether he supported the measure.
"We are just in the process now of trying to count heads," Fredette said. "We are certainly getting late in the process."
He noted that Republicans were asking that some other important bills, including one that pays off $183 million in state debt to hospitals, be acted on.
The bill would use revenue from a renegotiated contract for the state's wholesale liquor business to finance revenue bonds to pay the hospitals MaineCare reimbursements.
"It seems odd to me they are demanding that the governor simply veto the bill, if it gets passed, so we can act upon it when they've held the liquor contract bill for five months," Fredette said.
Alfond said lawmakers had a responsibility to pass the budget. He believed they would put politics aside to do so.
"I feel confident that we are going to have the votes needed," Alfond said. "We will see, but I trust that Republicans and Democrats — just like they did in Appropriations — will come together and pass this more responsible budget."
LePage met with Democratic leaders Wednesday. The meeting was "cordial," said Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman.
Bangor Daily News Staff Writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.