Inside Augusta

Maine lawmakers' approve $6.3 billion budget, tax increases; LePage's veto looms


AUGUSTA – The Maine Legislature on Thursday night gave final approval to a controversial $6.3 billion budget for 2014-15 that includes significant tax increases and virtually no spending reductions.

The lawmakers’ budget will land on Gov. Paul LePage’s desk more than five months after he presented his own plan. Despite strong indications that LePage intends to reject the budget bill (L.D. 1509), the new spending and tax increases contained therein will likely become law, as enough House and Senate Republicans are expected to join their Democratic colleagues in voting to override the governor’s veto.

Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau (R-Winterport) said last night that the budget proposal represents seriously misplaced priorities.

“Having one of the highest tax burdens in the nation has not helped us in the past, and this is just more of the same,” said Thibodeau. He said Republicans identified numerous areas in the budget, such as energy subsidies, where the Legislature could have reduced spending.

“Instead, we are going to once again ask Maine taxpayers to give up more of their paychecks to fund government services,” he said. “Almost everything they buy here in Maine is about to become more expensive due to our failure to live within our means and provide them with an efficient government that they can afford.”

Senate Democrats sang a different tune last night, calling the budget “responsible” and touting it as a bipartisan compromise.

Sen. Dawn Hill (D-York), who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee that wrote the budget, said politics did not play a role in the crafting of the bill or the timing of its delivery to the governor.

“As a committee and as a Legislature, we left politics at the door,” she said. “We rolled up our sleeves and worked together to craft a responsible, bipartisan budget for the people of Maine.”

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) said, “This is the best compromise that I have ever been a part of and reflects how this Legislature is supposed to work.”

Despite garnering a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, the budget document unquestionably reflects Democrats’ priorities more than Republicans.

The proposal will partially restore revenue sharing to Maine’s municipalities, an issue Democrats campaigned on relentlessly following LePage’s proposal to balance the budget by suspending the payments. The bill also provides more funding for education and the early childhood program Head Start.

The spending will be funded by temporarily increasing the sales tax 0.5 percent and increasing the meals and lodging tax by 1 percent.

Matt Gagnon, a Hampden native and columnist for the Bangor Daily News, gave the budget a blistering review and accused Democrats of using false rhetoric to disguise their own irresponsibility.

“Unsurprisingly, the ‘compromise’ budget that they are haphazardly pushing through doesn’t take the state’s fiscal situation seriously,” wrote Gagnon, who works as a consultant with the Republican Governors Association. “And why did the Democratic leaders in Augusta act this irresponsibly with the budget?  Because they wanted to use time against the governor and force him to accept their compromise.”

Although the strategic timing of the bill’s passage is unlikely to win over the governor, the tactic is largely responsible for getting Republican lawmakers on board. By waiting until late in the session to pass a budget, Democrats, with no shortage of help from the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA), raised the specter of a government shutdown.

Several Republicans who supported the plan did so, they said, in order to avoid a government shutdown.

Rep. Amy Volk (R-Scarborough) wrote in a Facebook post last night that the possibility of a government shutdown is what motivated her to support a budget with tax increases.

“I hate raising taxes to fill a hole, but do not want any part of a state shutdown,” wrote Volk. “I believe this is the best we can do at this point in time and I apologize if you are disappointed in a Republican who votes to raise taxes.”

Although the tax increases are designed to be temporary, many do not trust future legislators to allow the increases to sunset after two years. In response to Volk’s post, Kevin Pagnano of Freeport wrote, “If they drop the lodging tax after two years I’ll personally wash your car every week for a year. It will NEVER happen and you all know that.”

Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst), a rising star in the House Republican caucus, offered several amendments on the floor of the House that would have reduced spending and prevented tax increases.

“Democrats blocked every attempt to move the budget in a more responsible direction that reduces spending rather than increasing taxes,” said Lockman. “The only compromise here is a compromise of Republicans’ principles.”

“I will vote to sustain a veto of this irresponsible budget,” he said. “I urge my colleagues to stand with the governor.”

S.E. Robinson
Maine Wire Reporter

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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