AUGUSTA — A statement by Gov. Paul LePage designed to spur lawmakers to act on the budget had the opposite effect Wednesday when a key Democrat was so angered by the press release that he threatened to walk out of the meeting.

LePage said Democrats were delaying action on the budget and blamed them for the $221 million shortfall.

“The administration’s proposal has been public since the beginning of December, and while Democrats have criticized the plan from the start, they have failed to work on any solutions to the problem,” he said. “Republicans have been ready and willing to solve this and it’s time Democrats stop delaying this important issue.”

The release said that an independent fiscal office has verified the size of the shortfall — a claim disputed by Democrats — and took a jab at the role Democrats have played over the years.

“Democrats can no longer ignore this fiscal mess that they have created through the years,” he said. “Taxpayer funded, government-run healthcare is not universal nor is it free — it is paid for by hardworking taxpayers — and it must be saved for Maine’s most vulnerable.”

The Appropriations Committee had been at work for about 30 minutes when copies of the press release were distributed to members by Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport. After reading the release, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, closed his budget book and said he was going home.

“OK, I’m done working for the day,” he said. “I’m done working. The governor wants to issue this press release and do the budget himself. Have a good day. I’m going home.”

That prompted Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, to ask for a corner caucus, which allows Democrats and Republicans to meet separately in each corner. After a few minutes, Rotundo asked if the lead members of both parties could meet privately in the back.

More than an hour later, all members returned to their seats to continue work.

Martin, a former House speaker and a legislator for more than 40 years, said governors don’t normally get involved in committee work.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for a chief executive to not get into the middle of the process,” he said. “Chief executives normally get involved when we get in a crisis.”

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, who stood in the committee room during the delay, said the press release wasn’t intended to impede progress.

“If anything, the governor is encouraging that the process move on,” she said.

Before they got back to work, Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, urged the committee to stay focused on the task at hand.

“There are opportunities for distractions coming from a number of directions,” he said. “It’s important for us to stay focused on our work. Keep your heads down.”

After that, the committee got back to the painstaking, line-by-line examination of the budget proposal that seeks to close an estimated $221 million gap at the Department of Health and Human Services.

LePage’s statement came one day after legislators spent hours going over the causes for the shortfall, the assumptions that it’s based on, and whether there’s agreement from a nonpartisan office that the numbers are accurate.

Grant Pennoyer of the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review said it would likely take an additional two or three weeks for his office to be able to confirm the numbers.

“We are still not quite there in terms of coming up with an independent confirmation of the shortfall,” he said.

Yet DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said she’s concerned that questions about the numbers will delay actions needed to get to a solution. Lawmakers need to pass something by the end of this month to keep the department from running out of money in early April, she said.

“What is troubling to me is we believe you have the information to assess the shortfall,” she said. “I am concerned about a perception that we must continue an analysis for you to arrive at a shortfall number.”

After the Tuesday meeting, House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, prodded members of the committee to work together to find a solution.

“Today, I am calling on members of both parties to put partisanship aside, roll up their sleeves and work toward a solution that will put the DHHS budget on a path to future solvency and protect the system for those who need it most,” Nutting said.

The budget released in December eliminates MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, for 65,000 Mainers.

And while pressure is building inside the State House for a resolution, a Portland social worker presented more than 8,700 signatures in opposition to LePage’s proposal to Appropriations Committee House Chairman Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop on Wednesday.

Jennifer Lunden, executive director of The Center for Creative Healing, said she took it upon herself to launch an online petition drive in December when she heard about the cuts. Many of her clients are on MaineCare, she said.

“Some don’t have money for the $2 copay,” she said. “They don’t have cars. Without MaineCare, they wouldn’t be able to access counseling.”

Flood said it’s unlikely all of the cuts will be stripped out of the budget.

“When the committee’s work is done, I’m doubtful everything will be stopped,” he said. “How do you feel about an end result that is changed, rather than stopped? We’re dealing with what is more and more concretely described as a $220 million gap.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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