Slimmer budget headed for vote

Posted May 25, 2009, at 10:50 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — For more than three months, Maine’s nearly $6 billion budget has been largely in the hands of the 13 members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

This week, all lawmakers will have an opportunity to cast their votes on the slimmed-down spending plan for state government for the next two years.

Floor debate on the $5.8 billion biennial budget is expected to begin today with the goal of completing work on the appropriations bill by week’s end, if not sooner. Legislative leaders and state officials need to pass a new budget to keep money flowing to health care providers under the MaineCare program.

Lawmakers have until 10 a.m. today to file amendment requests for the budget. Both Democratic and Republican leaders said they fully expect members of their parties to attempt to amend the budget, despite the unanimous vote in support of the budget from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

“We don’t have nearly as much control over our members as people think,” John Piotti, the House Majority Leader, said with a laugh last week.

Piotti, D-Unity, described it as unlikely that anything but technical amendments will be approved by the majority of lawmakers given the amount of time and energy invested in developing the budget so far. In addition to Appropriations Committee members, the legislative committees with oversight responsibilities over state agencies helped identify more than a half-billion dollars’ worth of cuts.

Republican leaders also have praised the overall budget, which includes 20 government shutdown days, pay and benefit concessions by state employees, and cuts to education and health and human services programs. The state also plans to use $116 million from the state’s reserves as well as hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money to fill the gap.

“We will have produced a budget that is not only smaller but is significantly smaller — one-half a billion dollars smaller — than the current budget,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale.

In his weekly radio address, Gov. John Baldacci repeated statements that the budget strikes the right balance of spending cuts without harming vulnerable residents.

“In order for this budget to pass, two-thirds of the Legislature must approve it,” Baldacci said. “I encourage the members of the House and Senate to continue the precedent that has been set by members of the Appropriations Committee and legislative leadership, and work in a bipartisan fashion to do what is best for this state.”

Of course, the two-year budget is just one of numerous controversial issues still on legislators’ plates as they enter the final weeks of the session. Legislative leaders have said they hope to wrap up work several days before the scheduled June 17 adjournment in order to save money.

Among the other issues still to be voted are:

• A proposal to revamp Maine’s tax code by lowering income taxes while extending the sales tax to more goods and services.

• A proposal to raise the gas tax by 11 cents over the next four years to help pay for the glut of road improvement projects pending in Maine.

• An omnibus energy bill that sets a goal of weatherizing all Maine homes by 2030. The same bill, however, potentially could slow down work on plans to co-locate energy infrastructure — such as electricity transmission lines and energy pipelines — along Maine’s interstate highway system.

With the budget apparently heading toward final passage, the Appropriations Committee now must delve into the large pile of bond proposals for infrastructure, economic development and conservation projects. Baldacci has proposed a bond package totaling more than $300 million, while legislators have put forward plans for hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Last week, Maine Treasurer David Lemoine said state officials had been informed that two Wall Street rating agencies were reaffirming Maine’s bond rating.

The reviews by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investors Service come before the planned issuance of $141 million in general obligation bonds on June 1, Lemoine said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

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