AUGUSTA — About three months after Gov. Paul LePage first unveiled his two-year budget proposal, there’s still a lot of room for disagreement in the capitol.

Democrats say much of the colossal tax reform package in the plan, including the elimination of the estate tax and cuts to the corporate income tax, are a handout to the wealthy. On Thursday, they unveiled their counterproposal, which the GOP has already denounced as little more than unneeded government growth.

Meanwhile, Republicans are somewhat squeamish, albeit privately, about LePage’s efforts to broaden and increase the sales tax. Few lawmakers in either party are enthusiastic about provisions to gut revenue sharing or tax nonprofits.

With so many yawning gaps between the disparate parties in the budget talks — Democrats and Republicans, the Legislature and the governor — one might expect fear of a government shutdown to be palpable under the State House dome.

But those close to the negotiations say that’s not the case.

“I’m not going to let it happen,” said Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, who as House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee is the Democrats’ top budget negotiator. “No. We will figure it out. That’s not an option. We talk about that a lot in Appropriations, that failure is not an option for us.”

A tall order

Nearly all the stars in the sky of Maine politics must come into alignment before a state budget can be wrapped in a bow and passed into law.

There’s the disparate caucuses in both chambers of the Legislature, containing 186 individual voting lawmakers, all of whom have their own goals and constituent concerns.

There’s the 10 members of leadership, who must feed the machine of political theater while not mucking up the behind-closed-doors negotiations of the 13-member budget committee, which does the dirty legwork of hammering out a deal that’s — ideally — palpable to liberals and conservatives alike.

Then there’s the governor, who sets the stage with the first budget proposal and wields veto power over the Legislature’s final draft.

With more than $6 billion in state spending on the line and all those pieces to corral into place, it’s a tall order.

But the alternative is government shutdown, the threat of which looms over lawmakers and the governor with each day that goes by without a budget deal. If an accord isn’t reached by June 30, state government will grind to a screeching halt.

Lessons from the last shutdown

The last government shutdown happened in 1991, lasting 16 long days. It drew swift public backlash against second-term Republican Gov. Jock McKernan and lawmakers, as furloughed state workers, labor activists and other protesters lined the halls of the State House and set up a “tent city” in Capitol Park.

The ingredients that created the shutdown 24 years ago are all present today.

McKernan’s white whale was workers’ compensation reform, around which he dug in his heels, refusing to sign a budget that didn’t include the signature initiative. Majority Democrats balked, originally, at the inclusion of the reform package in the budget.

Neither side blinked, and state government shut down, preventing Mainers from registering vehicles and accessing many basic state services.

LePage begins his second term with aims to implement the kind of sweeping tax reform that’s been impossible for decades. Like McKernan, he’s made the plan a central part of his budget.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, is a member of the Appropriations Committee, and was speaker of the House during the 1991 shutdown, describing it as the “lowest point” in a legislative career that began in 1964.

He said Thursday that when LePage first proposed his budget in January, he would have assessed the threat of a government shutdown at “about 90 percent.” Today, he says it’s about fifty-fifty.

“It’s doable. If everyone works in the right direction, we can get it done,” he said.

Gauging LePage’s intent

Any budget — or veto override — will require two-thirds support of the House and Senate. Martin said he feared that degree of support would be difficult with a crop of freshman Republicans in the House, where two-thirds of the caucus members are serving their first terms in the State House.

“My impression at the beginning was it would be more difficult to get a two-thirds budget because of all the new Republicans elected who would want to keep faith with the governor, but there are a lot of Republicans out there grumbling about the governor’s tax package right now,” Martin said.

Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau on Thursday lauded the “good working relationship” between two parties in the Legislature and the governor.

Several other lawmakers, and others involved in the work of budget crafting, said Thursday that it was “premature” to discuss the likelihood of a shutdown but expressed confidence that the Legislature would coalesce around a compromise.

But they seemed to operate under the assumption LePage would not be a part of that deal.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, is a staunch fiscal conservative on the Appropriations Committee.

“The governor is going to probably not sign the budget, and probably will veto the budget, because it’s probably not going to have everything he wants in it, which is his right, and his privilege,” he said. “So we need to have a budget that, when it goes (to the Legislature), two-thirds of the House and the Senate can support.”

‘Someone will blink’

Efforts to obtain comment from LePage for this story were unsuccessful, but lawmakers’ inkling that he’ll draw a hard line in the sand — and stick to it — isn’t a baseless one. He’s used the veto pen as a negotiating tool before, nixing a bipartisan biennial budget in 2013 and a supplemental budget in 2014.

This year, however, Republicans control the Senate and a sizable minority in the House. If the party sticks with its leader, it could sustain LePage’s veto. But that’s unlikely, as both Thibodeau and House Republican Leader Ken Fredette have voted to override LePage’s budget vetoes in the past.

LePage has proven himself all but bulletproof at the ballot box and isn’t running for re-election, meaning he could withstand a government shutdown, even if he doesn’t want one. Few lawmakers, though, would want to return to their districts and have to answer for why they couldn’t get a deal done.

“When push comes to shove, someone will blink,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, a longtime lawmaker and one of the few Democrats who can bend LePage’s ear. Shutdown is “not healthy, and it demonstrates, it reaffirms, the dysfunctional view of governing itself.”


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