AUGUSTA, Maine — Republicans and Democrats on the Legislature’s budget committee made incremental progress toward a deal over the weekend but as of late Sunday evening had yet to advance most of the mammoth budget bill provisions to votes.
Lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters spent most of Friday night, Saturday and Sunday afternoon at the State House awaiting action by the committee, but there was little indication of how close or distant resolution was. Asked by a reporter at around 7 p.m. if she thought the Appropriations Committee would finish its work on the budget Sunday, House Chairwoman Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said only, “That’s my goal.”
Some decisions have been made and voted on, though none of the votes so far is final until the committee takes its final vote on the cumulative package. However, there have been some weighty decisions. On Friday, the panel voted unanimously to scrap a major portion of Gov. Paul LePage’s welfare reform proposal, namely an increase and expansion of the sales tax. The committee has also decided to let a temporary sales tax increase enacted two years ago expire.
Lawmakers in 2013 enacted the temporary increase in the sales tax, raising it from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, with a sunset of July 2015, at which time the rate would revert to the lower level.
LePage’s plan would have raised the sales tax to 6.5 percent and expanded the categories of goods and services taxed as part of a comprehensive tax reform effort.
The increase in revenue from the tax changes would have helped pay off LePage’s huge proposed cuts to the income tax, an effort the governor described as a first step in modernizing the sales tax and moving Maine toward a consumption-based tax system.
The committee also voted Friday night on several other LePage proposals:
— A unanimous vote against proposed cuts to the Medicaid Savings Plan and Drugs for the Elderly program, while voting unanimously to support a new asset test for those programs.
— A unanimous vote to support maintaining several tax breaks designed to encourage business growth and development.
— A unanimous vote to support a provision to equalize salaries between Department of Corrections employees and county jail employees who do similar jobs. Department of Corrections officials have said higher pay at county jails has decimated the agency’s ability to hire and retain workers.
Progress continued Saturday, with the committee rejecting several of LePage’s proposals in the Department of Health and Human Services, including $52 million in cuts to anti-smoking and immunization programs in the Fund for a Health Maine; $4 million in cuts that would have eliminated methadone treatment programs; and $2 million LePage proposed to use for a legal defense fund for his administration.
The committee also rejected $48 million in cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly program and a proposed $3 million expenditure for treating inmates referred to DHHS from the Department of Corrections.
Among the many outstanding issues that had not been decided in public as of Sunday evening were funding for public schools and major cuts to the state’s general assistance programs, especially for undocumented immigrants.
Legislative staffers were optimistic that negotiations could be completed Sunday night or very early Monday morning. The pressure to do so is as intense as ever.
Monday is the committee’s self-imposed deadline, which leaves time before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 for LePage’s expected veto, budget amendments to be written and for the budget bill to go through the Legislature. Another factor is that the Appropriations Committee has scheduled a week of public hearings related to dozens of bond proposals by lawmakers and LePage. On top of that, the Legislature itself has a crushing number of nonbudget bills to work through, including more than 300 on which Republicans and Democrats were not able to agree in the committee process. A five-days-a-week, three-sessions-a-day legislative schedule will begin soon.
The next three weeks under the dome are going to be a wild ride.
State House Bureau Chief Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.