Democrats counterpunch Gov. LePage by rolling out alternative budget

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Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, speaks during the first session of the 128th Legislature at the State House in Augusta, Dec. 7, 2016.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats quantified their opposition to Gov. Paul LePage’s state budget priorities Thursday when they unveiled an alternative budget plan they call “The Opportunity Agenda.”

In a prepared statement, the Democrats said their budget priorities include cutting property taxes and a range of investments in education and social services, as well as providing student debt relief. The specific details of the Democrats’ proposal were not immediately available as House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and other Democrats hosted a midday news conference at the State House.

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“The Opportunity Agenda capitalizes on our natural advantages, delivers quality services and invests in Maine’s future,” Gideon said in a written statement. “The problems we need to solve are bigger than this budget, bigger than the next two years and bigger than the current administration. It will take all of us working together to positions us for the future we deserve.”

This year’s budget negotiation comes at a time when revenues to state government are rising and the current fiscal year is expected to end with a surplus of tens of millions of dollars. Despite that, all indications point to another brutal budget battle this year over the long-term fiscal direction for Maine and where to prioritize investments.

Republicans and Democrats have already been saying for weeks that state budget negotiations this year will be as difficult as they have been in recent memory, which is saying a lot following the previous cantankerous negotiation in 2015, which threatened to shut down state government and ended only after legislative leaders took over negotiations from the budget committee.

LePage vetoed the budget package in 2015 but the Legislature avoided a government shutdown — which would have taken effect on July 1 — by overriding the veto on June 30. That’s also the way it went in 2013, when the Legislature came back into session on June 26 to override a LePage veto.

Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Timberlake of Turner, who is an Appropriations Committee member, have said they won’t agree to any budget that preserves a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000, which was approved by voters in November 2016 for the benefit of public schools. LePage has proposed delaying the implementation of that surtax and Timberlake said it is Republicans’ “line in the sand.”

Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said LePage’s budget proposal would benefit the wealthy while pinching property tax payers and schools.

“This time is no different,” Jackson said in a written statement. “The Opportunity Agenda puts Maine families first, giving them the tools they need to build the future they deserve.”

Events like Thursday’s are becoming a regular aspect of budget negotiations in Augusta. Just a shade under two years ago, Democrats unveiled their “Better Deal for Maine,” which eschewed LePage’s income tax cuts for high earners, kept lower sales and meals tax rates and increased municipal funding. Many of the Democrats’ priorities ended up in the final enacted budget.

LePage’s January budget proposal is similar to the one he released in 2015, but it could be argued that it’s less aggressive in the big picture, proposing to bring Maine to a flat 5.75 income tax, while only broadening and not raising the sales tax and making only a small corporate income tax cut.

Still, Democrats have stood firmly against many of the welfare changes in the Republican governor’s budget, including eliminating MaineCare eligibility for nondisabled parents who earn more than 40 percent of the federal poverty level and shortening the state’s five-year lifetime Temporary Assistance for Needy Families limit to three years.

LePage has argued that state government could continue to function if lawmakers pass short-term continuing resolutions, as Congress routinely does, but that tactic has never before been tried in Maine and some question whether it would conform with the Maine Constitution.

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