AUGUSTA — State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin ducked questions last week about his private business activities.

That may change this week.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, sent a letter last week to Attorney General William Schneider asking whether Poliquin violated the Maine Constitution when he recently got permission to expand activities at his Popham Beach Club. The constitution says state treasurers can’t engage in private business activity, apparently because their private interests could influence handling of state finances and bonding authority.

Then the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, saying Poliquin failed to disclose the business activity on his last financial disclosure form.

Poliquin, who has been an unusually vocal state treasurer, declined to comment on the issues last week, quickly walking away from MaineToday reporters who approached him for a response.

However, Poliquin met Friday with the director of the ethics commission and asked to be added to the panel’s agenda for a meeting on Wednesday so that he could respond before the next meeting some time in February.

“He has expressed a preference that this be considered soon,” said Jonathan Wayne, the director.

Wayne said it was doubtful that Poliquin’s case could be added on such short notice, however. The commission had not yet received a written response from Poliquin Friday afternoon.

‘Critical week’ for budget cuts

Lawmakers trying to come to terms with a $120 million hole in the current state budget need to make lots of progress this week if they are to reach agreement by the end of the month.

Gov. Paul LePage said his cuts to the health and human services budget need to be adopted by Feb. 1 or the shortfall will be even larger. That would mean even deeper, more painful cuts.

LePage has been aggressively pushing lawmakers to pick up the pace in recent weeks. He sounded a bit more relaxed — but only a bit — after a meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders Friday.

“I believe Democratic leadership understands the severity of the financial situation we’re in, and I’m cautiously optimistic that they are committed to working towards a resolution by Feb. 1,” LePage said. “We had a positive conversation this morning about the dangers of delay, and I think we’re moving in the right direction. However, in order to solve this budget crisis, we cannot use gimmicks to fill the hole. There will be difficult decisions made.”

Legislative leaders from both parties say they are absolutely confident they can reach an agreement soon that can get the necessary two-thirds vote from the full Legislature.

They’ve been in a tight spot like this before, said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

Observers predicted a budget impasse last year before the legislative leaders reached a compromise at the last minute. “Nobody thought we were going to succeed,” Raye said.

Members of the Appropriation Committee are expected to wrestle with the cuts right through the week and into the weekend, if necessary.

Pre-State of the State vigil

The Maine Can Do Better Coalition, made up of mostly left-leaning groups, will gather at 6 p.m. outside the State House Tuesday for a candlelight vigil before the governor delivers his State of the State address an hour later.

The Maine Children’s Alliance sent out an email alert last week to encourage groups to get organized.

“Please join us to protest the governor’s irresponsible proposals for health and human services,” the email reads. “Let’s show the governor that Mainers are united against his proposals.”

The vigil is highlighting opposition to LePage’s proposed budget cuts, which are now under consideration by lawmakers.

A united front?

While there’s plenty of partisan bickering at the State House, lawmakers do stick up for each other when outsiders attack.

Case in point?

Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, took a few moments last week to express his disgust with what he described as “hurtful and malicious outside efforts” to derail the budget process.

“Recently, we’ve seen material transmitted that has deliberately targeted a member of this committee that is unacceptable, that is clearly designed to disrupt our work and pull us apart,” he said. “Those kinds of efforts will not be the reason we succeed or fail.”

Rosen was careful not to specifically mention any group, but his statements came the day after a particularly harsh email blast from Maine People Before Politics, a group originally funded by leftover money from LePage’s transition funds. The headline read “43 Days Later John Martin & liberal legislators still delaying reform.”

The lengthy communication described Martin as the Democrats’ “puppet master” and detailed the 1992 arrest of one of Martin’s aides who got caught stuffing ballot boxes.

“Who is leading this fight against reform? One of the same people who put Maine in this position in the first place, a legislator who has spent decades in the Capitol voting for higher taxes, huge budgets, job choking red tape and consistently opposing reform: Mr. Martin,” the email reads.

Moving on

The ethics commission on Wednesday will consider a complaint filed by CasinosNO! that raises questions about the funding source behind the Lewiston casino proposal that failed at the ballot box by a 64-36 percent margin.

Political operative Dennis Bailey of CasinosNO! is asking the state to investigate because he doesn’t believe what the casino backers listed on their campaign finance reports.

“What’s the point of having campaign finance disclosure laws if it’s impossible for the public to determine on those forms who or what is really behind a campaign that is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to persuade voters in Maine?” he writes.

In a six-page response, casino backer Peter Robinson said the reports are accurate and that nearly all of the money for the campaign came from GT Source, an out-of-state company that makes slot machines. He ends his letter with a zinger directed at Bailey.

“You know, it’s one thing to lose, and it’s another thing to lose as badly as we did,” he wrote. “There are a lot of very disappointed people here in Lewiston. And I desperately need to get back to a real job, having sacrificed two years of my life for this project. It was a tremendous disappointment for me, but there’s no arguing about that lop-sided vote. I would very much like to move on with my life, and I think Mr. Bailey should move on with his as well.”

State House writers John Richardson and Susan Cover contributed to this column.

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