Maine lawmakers agree to return for special session, over LePage’s objections

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Maine lawmakers are poised to return next week for a special session to vote on a supplemental budget package, and perhaps other unfinished business, but Gov. Paul LePage already is criticizing them for taking “the easy way out.”

House Republicans, who effectively had been the lone holdouts, agreed Thursday to come back after getting assurances that funding for Medicaid expansion – approved last year by voters – would not be included in a budget package.

Under the state Constitution, the Legislature may convene “on the call of the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House, with the consent of a majority of the Members of the Legislature of each political party.”

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said in a prepared statement that members of his caucus were polled and enough of them agreed on a special session.

Senate Republicans and House and Senate Democrats were expected to do the same, although their poll results were not available by late Thursday afternoon.

The session has been scheduled to start Tuesday and could last up to three days.

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“We’ll just be picking up where we left off, running the bills, and hopefully getting things done,” Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau said Thursday on the MainePublic show “Maine Calling.”

Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon said lawmakers are eager to return, but uncertainty remains.

“One thing we’ve learned is that we should always expect the unexpected, but we still try to plan as best we can,” Gideon said.

LePage, though, made clear he’s not happy and even took a shot at members of his own party.

“A year ago, House Republicans shut down state government to make sure bad policies did not pass. Now they are giving in because it’s an election year,” the governor said in a transcript of his weekly radio remarks released Thursday morning.

Thibodeau and Gideon noted that LePage has the opportunity to line-item-veto portions of any budget, and they expect that might happen.

The Legislature adjourned May 2 amid gridlock after disagreements between Democrats who wanted funding for a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid and Republicans who wanted to slow minimum wage increases.

In the time since, many have criticized lawmakers for leaving so much work unfinished. This month, a coalition of 126 diverse advocacy groups pressured the Legislature to come back.

On Monday, the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee voted unanimously to endorse a package of bills that would add about $41 million in spending to the state’s two-year budget, with much of the funding aimed at helping those with disabilities, the elderly or people in the grip of opioid use disorders.

Among the endorsed measures is one that would remove 300 people from a state waiting list for services for the disabled at a rate of 50 people a month, starting in October. Also included was $600,000 from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to help fund school-based health centers.

The committee agreed to hold a separate vote on Medicaid expansion funding – an issue that has roiled Republicans, including LePage, who has refused to move forward with expansion even after losing a legal battle two weeks ago.

Still missing are any borrowing measures that would go to statewide votes in November, including $100 million earmarked for roads, bridges and port facilities. That measure is important for the Maine Department of Transportation, which counts on about $100 million of borrowing each year to keep its ongoing work plan in action. The bill is also time-sensitive, according to transportation officials, who have said if the Legislature does its part by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year, that would allow the state to apply for a large amount of federal matching funds.

Another area that could be contentious is how lawmakers deal with the Downeast Correctional Facility in Washington County. Gov. LePage abruptly closed the prison last year, which led to legal challenges and its eventual reopening. However, it’s future remains unclear.

Republicans don’t want any funding for the prison included in a spending package. Democrats have offered a standalone bill that would allow employees with at least 25 years of service to retire without a penalty.

“Senate Democrats have been ready to go back to work since day one. I’m glad that after more than a month of tough conversations and frustration it seems we are in a good place where all four caucuses are ready to return to Augusta sometime next week to wrap up all remaining business,” minority leader Troy Jackson said in a prepared statement.

As has often been the case in the past several years, the Legislature’s work could be upended by the governor.

His remarks Thursday suggested that unless changes are made between now and next week, he could veto all or part of the spending package. His major sticking point, as it has been for weeks, is the minimum wage.

“Our businesses and our state budget will face significant challenges when the minimum wage rises to 11 and 12 dollars an hour over the next two years because of the pressure it puts on everyone’s wages,” he said. “I’ve asked the Legislature to slow down the rate of increase to the minimum wage.”

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