AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Work hasn't ended yet for Maine lawmakers after the legislative season ended in a theatrical budget squabble and a three-day government shutdown.
In coming weeks and months, lawmakers still smarting from the budget will have to come together to deal with a pile of unfunded and vetoed bills, bonds, and the rollout of retail marijuana set for 2018. One hot-button issue lawmakers have pushed to next year is the future of a new ranked-voting method approved by Mainers, which the state is preparing to roll out despite a Maine Supreme Judicial Court advisory opinion saying it's unconstitutional for statewide races.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon spent days hashing out budget deals with Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau as House Republicans lined up with GOP Gov. Paul LePage in opposition — all ahead of a much-anticipated 2018 race for legislative seats and the governor's office.
But for all the headlines, University of New England political science professor Brian Duff said, it was a relatively "pain-free" shutdown over a holiday weekend that is unlikely to linger in people's minds. What could become a touchstone in 2018 races is the budget's elimination of an income surtax on high earners narrowly passed by voters to fund schools.
Still, Duff said, "you just don't feel the outrage bubbling up right now."
Instead, the shutdown's biggest impact could be seen in shifting power dynamics, and strained relations, among lawmakers as the governor heads into his last year and a half in office. The appropriations committee is expected to return Wednesday to deal with a pile of bills set to die without funding, including a high-priority bill to add eight hours of mental health first-aid training for corrections officers.
Gideon said lawmakers are now breathing a sigh of "great relief" after a weekend of tense negotiations centered on a proposed but unsuccessful lodging tax increase amid threats from LePage of a shutdown. She said House Republicans stalled budget talks and frustrated lawmakers over the weekend with lists of demands unrelated to the budget.
"There are feelings of people scratching their heads," she said. "There was never a clearly defined goal in the shutdown of what House Republicans were searching for."
But, she added of the governor: "I will be working with him when he's willing to work and collaborate." Gideon added that if the governor makes only demands, like support for rejected education reforms, "he's going to be on his own."
LePage spoke complimentary of Gideon on a radio show appearance Thursday, saying she "really has worked hard" for Maine people.
But the governor called the final two-year budget passed under his watch "fiscally irresponsible" and "sickening."
He said he'll continue fighting for Mainers.
"It's all about policy to me, and if your feelings get hurt, I'm sorry," LePage said. "But I'm not here about your feelings."
After midnight Tuesday, LePage praised House Republicans for sticking together and ending the shutdown.
"You are now formidable," he said. House Republican leader Ken Fredette told him, he said, "'the next supplemental budget, you're going to be in the driver's seat.'"
House Republicans cheered LePage as he said: "We kicked butt."
LePage's criticism of the $7.1 billion, two-year budget comes after he won support for school regionalization initiatives, and after House and Senate Republicans touted its elimination of the income surtax on high earners.
The governor spent months railing against the surtax, which Democrats agreed to eliminate in exchange for a $162 million increase in school funding that LePage called a "ransom." Budget negotiations stalled as House Republicans and LePage stood firm against Democrats and Senate Republicans' proposed increase to the state's lodging tax.
"I can't believe we were held hostage," the governor said Thursday, employing a term Gideon herself used to describe the governor's and House Republicans' actions during the shutdown.