A deeply acrimonious legislative session that produced the first state government shutdown in over 25 years lurched to a temporary halt early Thursday, but not before brinkmanship and procedural maneuvers further frayed relationships between House Republicans and House Democrats.
Those two factions still control the fate of dozens of unresolved bills that touch a number of issues, including a tax conformity plan that would affect nearly every Maine taxpayer, $6.3 million in treatment funding for the opioid epidemic, and health coverage for low-income Mainers. Also in play: millions of dollars in bonds to pay for transportation infrastructure, a proposal designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and Gov. Paul LePage’s bill to protect elderly homeowners from tax lien foreclosures.
The inaction stemmed from disagreements over a spending package that included $3.8 million in funds for the administration of the voter-approved Medicaid expansion law, which would benefit roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers. It also included tax cuts that would help the state align with the new federal code that will be in place next year as a result of the tax overhaul enacted by Congress in December.
Those two issues loomed for months as the Legislature slogged toward Wednesday’s statutory adjournment date. Democrats and Senate Republicans said they had reached a deal earlier this week, but that House Republican leader Kenneth Fredette suddenly walked away from it. Fredette said the deal was only a framework and that his caucus would not support any proposal that would further the implementation of the voter-approved Medicaid expansion law.
By Wednesday, Fredette indicated that his caucus would not vote to extend the session to buy more time to negotiate a deal. That prompted Democrats, who control the House, to begin tabling dozens of bills, a move that would effectively have killed the proposals at midnight.
But Democrats used one more arcane legislative maneuver to save the proposals in the event that the Legislature is called back for a special session or to deal with vetoes from the governor. The tactic was deployed just after midnight, drawing the ire of Republicans.
“We are now, Madam Speaker, witnessing what is wrong in politics,” said Rep. Jeff Timberlake, of Turner, who described the move as a “trap” and a “trick.”
Democrats were quick to point out that efforts to extend the session were supported by the GOP-controlled Senate. They also noted inconsistent statements and moves by House Republicans, who twice voted to adjourn on Wednesday, but opposed an identical motion early Thursday morning.
On Thursday, Democratic leaders and Fredette held dueling press conferences to trade blame.
Senate minority leader Troy Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, targeted Fredette. He accused the minority leader of stirring up “hate and discontent” in his caucus.
“This is a group of people who don't know what the hell they want... It's just unbelievable that this is what we have to deal with... It's just a crock of (expletive) in my opinion," Jackson said.
House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat from Freeport, said Fredette was working in concert with Gov. LePage to sabotage consensus.
“The governor, along with the minority leader in the House, have really tried to set something up where what they're trying to do is not comprise, not come together to put together a package, but push things to the last possible second, push people to the brink, or go over the brink, as a negotiating strategy,” she said. “And that's not a negotiating strategy, that's terrorism.”
Fredette said Democrats and Senate Republicans were to blame for the mess. He also took issue with Gideon’s characterization of his negotiating strategy.
"When she wants to refer to half of the body, in the Maine House of Representatives – that represents half this state in the legislature – she's referring to those people as terrorists? Shame on the Speaker," Fredette said.
Later in the day, Gideon issued an apology for the characterization.
"Out of frustration, I made a regrettable statement about the governor and the House Minority Leader. It was inappropriate and I apologize," she wrote in a statement. "The fact remains, however, that one group of people in the Legislature continues to obstruct the bipartisan majority in both chambers who are intent on getting back to work and doing the business our constituents sent us here to accomplish."
Seeds of Mistrust
The seeds of mistrust and discontent were sown last year when Fredette, Gideon, Jackson and Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau negotiated the state’s two-year budget. Those negotiations failed after Fredette led his caucus to support a temporary government shutdown that ran through the July 4 holiday.
Fredette and LePage later announced that they had a deal, a deal that was very similar to one of the earlier proposals forwarded by Thibodeau.
Fredette’s caucus and the governor treated the resulting budget deal as a victory and they posed with LePage at a private budget signing ceremony for a photo-op. Fredette boasted about his role in the shutdown during a recent gubernatorial forum hosted by WGME and the Bangor Daily News.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been criticized in some circles for bungling the budget negotiations, and more specifically, trading away too early a 3 percent surcharge on higher earners that voters approved in 2016 to bolster education costs. Several House Democrats have also said Fredette never negotiated in good faith, a claim echoed privately among Senate Republicans.
Senate Republicans have attempted to keep tensions in the Senate at a minimum while maintaining key policy disagreements with Democrats. That approach has arguably cost Thibodeau among Republican hardliners, and most certainly LePage, who has routinely criticized his former ally for negotiating with Democrats. The governor even announced that he did not support Thibodeau’s run for governor.
Thibodeau abandoned his gubernatorial run earlier this year. He cited family reasons and tending to his business, but political observers have speculated that LePage’s sustained attacks played a role, too.
No Resolution In Sight
The recent hostilities raise questions about the Legislature’s ability to resolve outstanding issues.
While some of the initiatives, including tax conformity, could be pushed to next year, lawmakers’ inability to solve them could become a liability in an election year. Every single seat in the Legislature is up for reelection. Fredette, who has aligned himself with LePage over the past several years, is also running for governor.
It’s unclear if Fredette’s latest alignment with LePage will bolster conservative bona fides in a way that will benefit his gubernatorial bid. But he insisted on Thursday that the governor must be a part of future negotiations.
He also said that the Democrats need to give ground and slow down a minimum wage increase that voters passed in 2016. Fredette said the yearly increases are slamming rural Mainers.
But Gideon said any changes to minimum wage are a non-starter for talks. She told also reporters on Thursday that no negotiations had been planned yet.
Whether or not the two sides can reach a deal is unclear. However, lawmakers will return to deal with gubernatorial vetoes either later this month or early May.