AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to submit a budget revision bill this fiscal year has spurred Democrats in the Legislature to take the lead in crafting a supplemental budget, something that hasn’t happened in Maine in recent memory.
But by taking the budget reins, Democrats drew strong criticism from Republicans.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, co-chairwomen of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, sent letters to LePage and state department heads on Tuesday notifying them that legislators will take the initiative in writing a supplemental budget rather than reacting to proposals from the governor, as has been past practice.
“We understand that you will not be submitting a supplemental budget during the second regular session,” wrote Hill and Rotundo in the letter to LePage, who noted that several funding shortfalls are expected this year. “The Legislature is prepared to draft a supplemental budget to keep the state budget in balance. To that end, we have respectfully requested information and analysis from all departments and agencies of the state of Maine.”
Rotundo said Wednesday that the move is necessary because LePage has said repeatedly that he will not present a supplemental budget during the legislative session that begins next month, regardless of the state’s fiscal situation.
“This is really unprecedented that we have a governor who is not taking his responsibility to provide a supplemental budget seriously; this has never happened before,” said Rotundo. “The fact that he is not sending us one means that we need to do all of that work ourselves and what complicates that is that a lot of the information we need to do a supplemental budget is held by the administration. … We would very much like to work with the administration on this.”
Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who also serves on the Appropriations Committee, said one of the dangers of not dealing with funding shortfalls in a supplemental budget bill is that it could lead LePage to make cuts with a curtailment order, which Cain said is a “blunt tool” that could hurt education and social services.
“Last year the governor brought forward a budget that was wildly unpopular,” said Cain. “We brought forward a bipartisan compromise that the governor has never liked in the first place. If he’s not going to forward his ideas, we as a Legislature are going to have to do everything we can to bring forward a budget that people can agree on.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett reaffirmed the governor’s stance against submitting a supplemental budget on Wednesday.
“The governor is not going to be drafting a supplemental budget for them,” said Bennett. “The governor will meet his constitutional obligation and work with lawmakers to ensure there is a balanced budget. …. As an administration, the governor has already made his proposal, last year in his biennial budget proposal.”
LePage’s original budget proposal for the two fiscal years that began on July 1 of this year was modified by the Legislature, including a reduction in LePage’s effort to eliminate municipal revenue sharing. Lawmakers from both parties agreed to add to LePage’s proposed funding for public schools and give raises to state employees, initiatives that they funded with temporary increases in sales, meals and lodging taxes that took effect in October.
LePage vetoed the bipartisan budget, citing his distaste for the tax increases and his anger over the restoration of municipal revenue sharing, which he has called “welfare” for municipalities.
Bennett said LePage’s stance is that he already has proposed solutions.
“If [lawmakers] want to go back and take some of the ideas that were in that original proposal, that’s certainly something they can do,” said Bennett. “We will help them identify the shortfalls but we’re not going to provide solutions because we’ve already done that.”
House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said Democrats made their requests to state departments without any conversations with Republicans. Fredette estimated that the supplemental budget bill might have to fill a hole as big as $100 million.
“If the Appropriations Committee is undertaking some actions to do a $50 million to $100 million supplemental budget, I would have thought one of the first things they would do is reach out to Republican leadership,” he said. “I for one will not be supportive of any attempts to fix this problem with any tax increases. Democrats need to come forward with spending cuts to help solve this problem.”
Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells, the ranking Republican on the committee, said to start writing a supplemental budget now is “premature” because there are so many variables in play, ranging from a study of tax exemptions to a task force that is considering whether to tax nonprofit groups.
“We really don’t know what the shortfall is going to be,” said Chase. “We need to focus on the realistic part of keeping our budget balanced but not by jumping off the cliff of manufacturing a fiscal crisis at this time.”