LEWISTON — The upcoming special session of the Maine Legislature, set to settle a nearly $83 million budget shortfall in the state's Department of Health and Human Services, is off to a tumultuous start.
Leaders from both sides of the political aisle have launched opening salvos in the debate.
Democratic leaders, including Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston are charging Republicans with following "secret marching orders" from Gov. Paul LePage.
Republicans have shot back saying their colleagues, in the minority across the aisle, are playing election-year politics.
The Legislature's Appropriations Committee meets Thursday to settle the details on a bill that solves the shortfall but Democrats say they and the public have been excluded from hearing a last-minute proposal sent to Republican leaders last Friday by LePage.
“The governor has handed down secret marching orders to the Republicans with no intention of informing the public,” Rotundo, the lead House Democrat on the committee, said in a widely circulated news release. “I’m saddened to see such an end-run around the public and disregard for our working together. As a veteran member of this committee, I’ve never seen such an overstep by a governor. He may as well be chairing the committee.”
On Wednesday, Rotundo, in Augusta to meet with her caucus, said leaders in her party still had not been invited to negotiate with Republican leaders on the LePage proposals, and GOP officials had refused to share the governor's memo.
She said Democrats had to ask the governor's office for it directly, and that it was not being disseminated widely to the public. Rotundo said LePage's proposals constituted substantive changes to the budget and that they did not consider new state revenue forecasts that show the state gaining an unexpected $43 million from taxes in 2012.
She said the LePage proposals would have a broad impact — including to state programs that help pay for prescription drugs for the elderly, Head Start programs and programs for the developmentally disabled among other things. The cuts would shift more costs to local government or to the private sector, Rotundo said Wednesday.
She was discouraged that Republican leaders appeared to be abandoning a long history of passing budgets that were supported by a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, she said.
But Republican leaders called Rotundo's comments "outrageous, exaggerated and, in several cases, simply untrue."
The Republican Speaker of the House, Robert Nutting said Rotundo and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, owed the co-chairmen of the Appropriations Committee an apology.
In letter issued on the heels of Rotundo's comments Nutting wrote:
“To say that ‘the governor has handed down secret marching orders’ is untrue. No Republican member of Appropriations has been told how to vote by the Governor. They have their own thoughts and will craft a budget that best serves the people of their districts and of the State of Maine."
Rotundo said she's concerned because there appears to be no guarantees from the majority that they will restore line-item budget cuts LePage made in April to state funding to cities' general assistance programs. The $5 million in cuts leaves Lewiston unsure of how it will fund its $1.6 million in General Assistance.
Rather than reconvene the Legislature in April to take up the line-item veto, Republican leaders said the problem would be addressed during the upcoming special session.
"We really just don't know if they are going to honor any of those promises or not," Rotundo said Wednesday. While she did not apologize to Appropriations co-chair Rep. Patrick Flood, she did say he was a "good and honorable man" but lamented that he and other Republican moderates were being "whipped pretty severely by the extreme flanks of," the GOP.
But Nutting reminded Democrats it wouldn't be the first time the party in the majority foisted its will on the minority.
"They know that during their reign, numerous Democrat-only budgets were passed where last minute amendments were unveiled minutes before the committee was to vote on them — amendments with significant policy changes that had no public hearing and that the Republicans had not seen before," Nutting wrote.
The Appropriations Committee is set to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday in Room 228 at the State House and is expected to pass a bill onto the full Legislature for consideration early next week.