AUGUSTA — If Maine lawmakers are expecting to work on a supplemental state budget in 2014 they are going to have to go it alone, Republican Gov. Paul LePage said during a recent 45-minute interview with the Sun Journal.
"The governor will not put up a supplemental budget," LePage said. "I will not. ... We have had six supplementals in three years, and (legislators) call it balanced budgets. The 2014-15 budget is not balanced."
It's not the first time LePage has vowed he won't offer a budget fix in 2014.
But for him to not present the Legislature with suggestions for rebalancing the state's $6.3 billion budget based on the latest expense and revenue forecasts would be unprecedented.
Still, LePage is adamant he gave lawmakers a plan to balance the state's two-year budget in 2013, and they rejected it, replacing it with their own, including a half-cent hike to the state's sales tax. When LePage vetoed their budget, the Legislature overrode him to avert a government shutdown in July.
"They overrode my veto, and therefore they have inherited this budget and they need to figure out a way to balance it," LePage said. LePage also predicts there will be a revenue shortfall and a budget gap in 2014.
Leaders in the Legislature's Democratic majority say they will forge ahead with or without the governor. They also warn the state's constitution requires the state budget be in balance and suggest LePage would be derelict in his duties were he to shrug off presenting a mid-cycle correction.
"I don't know if that's ever been done," House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said. "I don't know if a governor has ever refused to issue a supplemental budget, so I don't know if there's any precedent or history there, but certainly we will do all we needed to do to balance the budget."
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said LePage says a lot of things he doesn't follow through on, so he's taking a wait-and-see approach to the governor's threat.
"We will as a Legislature, if he does not do his job, we will absolutely craft a supplemental budget, follow the constitution, create a balanced budget and do the work the people of Maine expect us to do," Alfond said.
Yet the divide over a supplemental budget is only one of several set to put LePage at sharp odds with the Democratic majority in 2014 — also an election year.
An ongoing rift between Democrats and LePage over whether the state should expand its Medicaid program, MaineCare, under new provisions in federal law or not, has dominated Maine's political news in recent days.
LePage has reiterated he won't sign a bill making the program available to an additional 70,000 childless adults. The expansion, while funded at 100 percent by the federal government for the first three years, would still cost the state additional revenue to administer. LePage and Republicans estimate that figure to be about $10 million a year.
They also note that the federal reimbursement rate for the expansion will only eventually pay 90 percent, leaving the 10 percent of the health care costs for those 70,000 up to the state to pay for each year. Republicans say that cost will be $75 million a year.
LePage has also said he will not expand the program for "able-bodied" young people until lawmakers craft a plan to address a MaineCare waiting list that includes some 3,100 disabled and elderly people.
"We didn't give them health care, and we've got another 35,000 people who qualify for MaineCare, but they didn't fund enough money, so they also need to be on a waiting list," LePage said.
Democrats say the savings the state will see by improving health care access plus a higher reimbursement rate from the federal government would far outweigh the expenses cited by Republicans. They also point to a fiscal note, produced by the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review, that shows the expansion would lead to a net savings for the state.
Alfond said LePage and other Republicans also often fail to mention that while the reimbursement rate does go down to 90 percent, it is a 10-year ramp down to that rate. The total amount the state would see from the expansion in the meantime is in the ball park of $700,000 a day for three years, Alfond said.
"And that's a substantial detail," Alfond said.
Eves said he's skeptical the GOP concern over the wait list is sincere.
"All of a sudden they are worried about our most vulnerable population, when it is convenient," Eves said. "It's the latest excuse in a long legislative battle that they have put a roadblock on. First, it was we don't have enough time, we don't understand the issue. Second, it was let's let the governor negotiate a grand bargain with (the federal government). And third was there's this waiting list we need to take care of before we accept these federal dollars."
Eves said he would "love to partner with (Republicans) on their concerns around the waiting list."
Olive branch dispute
LePage and Democratic lawmakers are also at odds over who has been willing to compromise or even negotiate more. LePage admits he's a tough negotiator and refuses to "hoss trade good policy for bad policy."
He also says he was unfairly accused of not reaching out more to Democratic leadership in 2013 but insists he called for three meetings with leaders while they only asked him to meet once.
The lack of cooperative work with Democratic leadership was his biggest frustration in 2013, LePage said.
"So all the budget went through without any meetings, all the bills went through without any discussions. They refused to allow the governor to speak at appropriations," LePage said. "They just totally do not want to work with the executive branch — that's my frustration."
Alfond recalls a different scenario, including near-daily efforts during the first weeks of the 2013 lawmaking session to set up meetings with LePage.
"It's just patently wrong for him to say he asked for more meetings than we did," Alfond said. "But the bigger issue, that he seems to overlook or not understand, is why would he have that approach anyway? And what more could we have gotten done if we had been working together from Day 1, when we started asking for these meetings?"
Alfond said he and Eves did meet with LePage's staff each week and praised them for their professionalism. "And those were productive meetings. It's just very unfortunate that we couldn't have that collaboration with the governor."
Alfond said the meetings they did have with LePage were also productive.
"We understood what we needed to do to move things forward or where we were going to get caught up," Alfond said. "But it's just patently wrong for him to say he asked for more meetings than we did."
Gridlock in 2014
LePage also predicts lawmakers will get little done in 2014 as they gear up for their November election campaigns.
"If it's anything like (my) first two years, nothing gets done," LePage said. The first half of the lawmaking session, which happens right after the two-year election cycle, things move along, he said. "They do try to get things done; there really is an effort to do the right thing in the first session," LePage said. "The second session nothing happens because it's election year."
LePage also offered an analysis of why he believes little gets done in Augusta, including crediting lawmakers as individuals but criticizing them for acquiring a political mob mentality at the State House.
"I know deep down they all want to do the right thing," LePage said. "The thing about the Legislature, the overwhelming majority of the people in the Legislature, in both houses including independents, want to to do the right thing. The problem is individually they are all great people; collectively they're a mob."
He said personal goals or pet projects consume the Legislature.
"That's the unfortunate thing, because when they all get together it's all about favors, and they lose sight of what's important," LePage said. "Everybody becomes very concerned about their own little legislation, or their own little program, their little project. ... 'I want to get my street paved; I need this little bridge to nowheres.' ... These are the types of things that happen."
Eves said he hopes the governor is incorrect.
"Whether it's a campaign year or not," he said, "my hope would be we can focus on getting people back to work and improving our economy. We can't hit pause just because there's an election. We need to keep going as fast as we can implementing policies that are going to improve our economy and help people stay in the middle class and get in the middle class."