Capitol Notebook: Deja vu all over again in Augusta

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The maxims of the late New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra often come in handy. Like last week, when the start of the new legislative session seemed to replay the acrimony and distrust that marked the previous Legislature.

A case in point was the battle over plans for a new mental health facility to relieve overcrowding at Riverview, the state’s main facility in Augusta.

While everyone agrees that the facility is necessary, plans have log-jammed in a turf war between legislative Democrats, who want full hearings and more information on the facility, and Gov. Paul LePage, who just wants to go ahead and build.

Last week, members of two Legislative committees spent a long afternoon reviewing the plan for the new facility, despite the fact LePage had withdrawn the proposal earlier in the day. LePage, angered that the plan had been blocked by Democratic leadership, who sought hearings, said he would instead place the facility in Bangor, which he said would not need Legislative approval.

And so the new session begins in the atmosphere of partisan brinksmanship. From this early start, it looks like the new Legislature, filled with some new faces but many of the same party leaders, will feature the same hostility that marked the last one, which had some of the worst relationships between a Legislature and a governor since the showdown between Gov. John McKernan and longtime Speaker John Martin that led to a government shutdown in 1991.

It looks like the same fissures will extend between all the actors on the Augusta stage: between the governor and the Democrats, between the governor and some Republicans, and between Republicans in the state House of Representatives and those in the Senate.

This legislative season will be mainly a run-up to 2018, when the election of a new governor brings the first chance to change direction in Augusta. LePage is also widely expected to run against U.S. Sen. Angus King.

In anticipation of his likely Senate campaign, LePage will again cast the Legislature as the enemy and picture lawmakers as the architects of politics as usual. In radio appearances last week, he described legislators as irrelevant and only interested in playing politics. He will cast himself as running against politics as usual, a potentially effective message in the age of Trump.

The main battleground for this year will be the governor’s budget proposal for the biennium that starts July 1. Waiting until almost the last moment last Friday evening, the governor’s office released a $6.8 billion two-year budget that contains many of the same policy initiatives, like reducing income taxes and cutting back social-service spending, that have been part of his previous budgets.

In addition to taxes, and a plan to trim state government by 500 employees, LePage’s budget plan contains many policy initiatives, especially in education funding. He wants to have a statewide teacher contract, setting a minimum compensation for Maine teachers, and to force communities to spend their own money on administrative costs, rather than having the state fund them.

He also wants to provide cash for communities to explore ways to work together and save money by consolidation, a goal that has been around since the administration of Gov. John Baldacci. LePage also wants to continue shifting the state’s tax structure to reduce income taxes, while extending the sales tax to new goods and services, such as movie and ski tickets, as well as snow plowing and other home services. That plan, although initially well received by many at the beginning of the last Legislature, was quickly killed.

The proposed budget would also trim the state Medicaid rolls, eliminating eligibility for people who are above 40 percent of the federal poverty level. LePage also wants to shorten the time that people can get help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from five years to three years, and end funding for General Assistance.

These proposals will galvanize debate during the next few months as the budget works its way through the Appropriations Committee, and then to the full Legislature for action before the July 1 deadline. The governor plans to sell his budget plans in yet another reprise, a continuation of last year’s town hall meetings when he traveled the state, urging Mainers to reject two referendum proposals on the November ballot. (The referendum proposals that he fought hardest against, including a minimum wage increase and an income tax surcharge to fund education, both passed.)

The next few months will bring a bumpy ride in Augusta. But it is a good opportunity for Mainers to weigh in on the all-important budget plan by showing up to hearings or at one of LePage’s meetings, or by contacting legislators.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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