AUGUSTA, Maine — The fanfare and tumult of enacting the state’s biennial budget is over, but there are decisions worth potentially tens or hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars left to make when the Legislature returns for its last two days of this year’s session.
There were 137 bills enacted by the Legislature this year which are in danger of slow deaths if lawmakers can’t find funding for them. According to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, funding all of those bills would cost more than $486 million over the biennium. And according to the chairmen of the Legislature’s budget committee, the amount of money available to fund the bills is somewhere close to $0.
There are also 36 general obligation bond proposals brought forward by lawmakers and state departments worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s unclear what amount, if any, the Legislature and governor are willing to support but it’s certain that the number is far closer to zero than it is 36.
Here’s a rundown of some of the bills still pending:
The special appropriations table
This concept is steeped in bureaucratic weeds but it’s often said at the State House that this is where good bills go to die. Just about any bill that costs money and doesn’t identify or establish a funding source ends up on the table (there’s no real table) and after the budget is settled, any money left over funds some of the bills.
“I don’t expect that we’ll have much if any funding available in order to actually provide funding for things that need money,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who co-chairs the budget committee. “I imagine that we’ll be looking at those bills to possibly carry over until next session.”
Committee co-chairman Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford, agreed that there is no money for more bills.
That means the bills will remain alive, if only barely, until 2018 but the prospect that there will be any more money available then than there is now is slim.
There’s no money for more bills because of a decision made Monday to enact a budget and end the partial state government shutdown. When LePage and House Republicans finally forced Democrats and Senate Republicans to eliminate a proposed increase in the lodging tax, which was worth around $20 million a year, it tightened up the estimated gap between projected revenues and spending over the next two years, known as the fund balance, to just $10 million, according to Gattine. That’s a pittance compared with the $7.1 billion budget, and any slight variance in either spending or revenues could make that vanish in a flash.
There are some high-profile bills on the list. The Office of Fiscal and Program Review has published the list of bills and their fiscal impacts on its website, but here are a few highlights:
— LD 8, An Act To Provide Training for Forest Rangers To Carry Firearms. This bill, which was hotly debated during the legislative session, would cost around $140,000.
— LD 31, A Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require That Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each Congressional District. The cost to the General Fund would be to conduct a referendum. This bill was seen by some as necessary to make ballot access more difficult in the wake of five citizen-initiated referendums in 2016.
— There are a number of bills on the table that would exempt certain groups from paying taxes, including teachers, senior citizens and disabled veterans.
— There are several bills that would expand taxpayer-funded Medicaid for various medical conditions.
— LD 89, An Act To Provide Emergency Repair Funding for the Restoration of the Official State Vessel, the Schooner Bowdoin. The cost is $500,000.
— LD 173, An Act To Reduce Food Insecurity. The $5 million price tag on this one makes it impossible this year.
— LD 952, An Act To Ensure Access to Opiate Addiction Treatment in Maine. It’s a concept that most people can agree on, but with a $573,000-a-year fiscal note.
— LD 1089, An Act To Prohibit the Use of Handheld Phones and Devices While Driving. This bill received a lot of attention during the legislative session but the fiscal office projects that it could actually generate revenue. We’ll see whether it’s put on hold.
— LD 1170, An Act To Reduce Youth Access to Tobacco Products. This was another high-profile bill that would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. There was some dispute over the fiscal impact, which by some measures could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the biennium from lost tax revenues, so this may or may not make it into law.
— LD 1399, An Act To Encourage Broadband Coverage in Rural Maine. This would transfer a revenue stream but still cost the state $136,000 or more a year.
— LD 1490, An Act To Stabilize Funding for the County Jails. It costs $3.8 million a year.
The Appropriations Committee is scheduled to convene July 12 to act on the Special Appropriations Table bills.
The bond bills
There are 36 bond bills which would total hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. That is not abnormal, nor is rejecting most of them, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers don’t have good justifications for forwarding them. One of the bills, LD 1552, was forwarded by LePage to support the Department of Transportation’s work plan for the next three years. It calls for a $100 million referendum in November of this year and another $100 million referendum in November 2018.
There are bonds proposed for research and development, a number of transportation and infrastructure projects, investments in state universities and community colleges, environmental projects, energy infrastructure and several other causes.
The Legislature needs to appropriate money to make bond payments every year. According to Gattine, there is enough of that money in the just-enacted biennial budget to support $150 million in new bonding, but that doesn’t mean that’s how much to expect. That is a matter that will be negotiated by legislative leaders. When the Appropriations Committee and full Legislature will address that has not been scheduled.
In the past, bonds have been used as leverage in debates over the state budget bill, but that won’t come to pass this year with the budget already enacted. However, tough and sometimes bruising negotiations that have defined this year’s Legislature over how much taxpayer money to spend are not over.