AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a $5.8 billion budget compromise on Tuesday after limited debate on a handful of unsuccessful attempts to alter the bill.
“I think the fact that there were only five amendments and the debate was so short is a reflection that we spent over five months working on this budget,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven.
Lawmakers repeatedly used such phrases as “heartburn” and “spreading the pain” in the lead-up to the vote on a two-year budget that makes deep cuts to programs throughout state government and flat funds others.
Overall, the proposed spending plan is roughly $500 million smaller than the current biennial budget — something that hasn’t happened in Augusta since 1974.
Rep. Josh Tardy, a Newport Republican and House minority leader, said he was also pleased with the vote and credited the Democratic leadership for allowing the minority party a strong role in shaping the budget.
“I think we all recognize that there is something in this budget that’s not to like,” said the minority leader.
Although a relatively small chunk of the nearly $6 billion budget, cuts and concessions on state employees has received most of the attention in Augusta in recent days.
The budget would shut down government without pay for 10 days each of the next two years, suspend merit and longevity raises, and require state employees to pay more for their health insurance.
Earlier Tuesday, more than 150 members of the Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989 and other state workers held a rally to oppose the cuts, which they say would force them, their families and local communities to absorb a disproportionate share of the financial pain.
The union members, who filled a hallway outside of a chamber where Democrats were gathered, chanted slogans and waved signs such as “More Work, Less Pay, No Way!” But an attempt to reinstate the longevity raises for state employees by an Augusta lawmaker failed on the House floor.
“None of this budget has been easy, but this is part of a package,” Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat who is co-chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said while urging lawmakers to reject the amendment.
House members also rejected amendments dealing with school consolidation, additional fees being leveraged on sportsmen and an attempt to prohibit state agencies from buying bottled water.
The latter amendment, proposed by Rep. Benjamin Marriner Pratt, D-Eddington, would save the state only an estimated $70,000. But Pratt said it would send an important message about reducing what he called “frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars” at a time when many important government services are already being cut.
Cain countered that while she supported Pratt’s intent, his amendment could have unanticipated consequences on state workers who work in the field or in buildings with unsafe supplies of water.
The House voted 115-31 to send the budget bill to the Senate for consideration, after which it will come back to the House for additional votes. The budget requires approval from two-thirds of the members of both houses to pass.
David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said Tuesday’s House action, although preliminary, was “a strong vote” that reaffirmed the work of the legislative budget committee.