Maine government shutdown ends with signing of $7.1B budget

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Gov. Paul LePage succeeded in eliminating a lodging tax increase from a $7.1 billion, two-year budget but both sides found something to cheer in the agreement that ended a three-day state government shutdown.

House Republicans held out for the elimination of a 1.5 percent increase in the state lodging tax, a move that angered Democrats and Senate Republicans who'd worked together for a budget compromise.

"I thank legislators for doing the right thing by passing a budget that does not increase taxes on the Maine people," LePage, a Republican, said after signing the budget early Tuesday, surrounded by House Republicans.

Democrats were pleased that additional funding was added to the Head Start and Clean Election programs. The budget also increased K-12 spending by $162 million to partially offset the elimination of a 3 percent voter-approved surcharge on high-income earners that had aimed to increase classroom spending and ease property tax burdens.

"Despite House Republicans throwing up roadblocks at every turn, we were able to close a budget that makes the largest investment in public education in our state's history," said Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

The first state government shutdown in 26 years began Saturday when House Republicans balked at a compromise budget.

But the governor's decision to keep state parks open and island ferries operating minimized the impact on tourists, and LePage granted administrative leave Monday to ensure workers are eventually paid.

Negotiations were tense as LePage sought to bend the Legislature's will in his last term as governor by threatening to extend the shutdown by refusing the sign the budget, a move that would've extended the shutdown by 10 days. He chastised lawmakers for "petty egos" and singled out Gideon and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau.

"He's trying to flex that muscle for his last time," said Matt Gagnon, chief executive of the conservative Maine Heritage Foundation, referring to the final budget. "He and the House Republicans banded together."

LePage actually supported increasing the lodging tax in his original budget proposal that contained an income tax cut. Democrats contended he should've been satisfied by the elimination of the surtax. In the end, Republicans got both the elimination of the surtax and the elimination of the lodging tax increase.

"House Republicans never wavered and stood resolute in our commitment to get a budget done and end this shutdown," said Republican Rep. Ellie Espling, of New Gloucester.

For someone who touts himself as an outsider, the governor has proven himself to be a shrewd politician, said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.

"He's a pretty skilled operator," Brewer said. "He found himself in a situation with a huge about of leverage and he used it."

Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson said neither side was completely satisfied with the budget, and he said that's the way the system is supposed to work.

"With divided government, we were never going to get a budget we loved," the senator from Allagash said. "In the end, we got a budget we can live with."

The last shutdown in 1991 lasted several weeks and was over workers' compensation reform during a tough economic period for Maine. State employees flooded into the Statehouse as citizens seeking services found shuttered motor vehicle offices, long waits to apply for food stamps and closed veterans' cemeteries.

This time was different. The shutdown was short.

But Democratic Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who was a lawmaker in the 1990s after the last government shutdown, warned that there could be ramifications down the road.

"There's going to be a lot of hard feelings," he said. "We hope this is not something they did lightly because it's going affect relationships in the statehouse for a long time."

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Associated Press reporter David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.


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