AUGUSTA, Maine — Political leaders on both sides of the aisle praised a $5.8 billion budget negotiated by a legislative committee as striking an appropriate balance between reducing state spending and preserving critical state services.
After months of work, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee voted unanimously early Tuesday morning in support of a two-year budget that includes 20 government shutdown days and deep cuts to programs throughout state government.
Now, legislative leaders are gearing up for the next major step in the process: convincing two-thirds of House and Senate members to go along with the proposal. Floor debates are expected to begin next Tuesday.
“I think it is going to be close,” said Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity, the House majority leader. “I don’t think we’re going to get too many extras.”
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers seized on the fact that the $5.8 billion budget, which covers fiscal years 2010 and 2011, is roughly $500 million smaller than the last biennial budget. Within recent weeks, the Appropriations Committee has had to close an additional $569 million budget hole due to somber revenue forecasts.
While budget writers achieved the savings without massive layoffs, state employees are taking a few hits in the budget.
In addition to 10 unpaid shutdown days each year for two years — the equivalent of losing two weeks of earnings — state workers will be required to contribute toward their health insurance costs and will not receive merit or longevity pay raises.
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said nobody would have guessed several months ago that they could get those concessions from state employees.
Raye also credited the Appropriations Committee for “reining in” MaineCare spending, another key focus of GOP members throughout the budget negotiations.
“I’m very pleased with it,” Raye said of the overall budget. “I think it’s a good example of the kind of quality product you can get when the system really works in bipartisan cooperation.”
Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, also said the budget plan strikes the right balance.
“This budget will help position Maine for economic recovery, make significant structural changes in government and protect our state’s core values,” Baldacci said in a statement.
If enacted, the reduced spending plan will have repercussions on state services, towns and the average taxpayer.
For instance, the budget keeps state funding for schools roughly level for Fiscal Year 2010 but reduces it by more than $50 million for FY 2011. Funding for Maine’s public colleges and universities will decline by $6 million over the biennium.
The state’s efforts to adjust for inflation by adjusting individual income tax brackets also will be partially frozen, resulting in nearly $14 million in savings for the state at taxpayers’ expense.
The budget plan would save $24 million by scaling back several tax relief programs. Those include a 20 percent across-the-board reduction to the Circuit Breaker program that offers rent or property tax refunds to residents and a 5 percent reduction in the Tree Growth Program.
Rep. John Martin, the former longtime Democratic House speaker from Eagle Lake, called the budget “the best of the worst situation,” adding that the committee “can be proud of having done it, but not proud of everything that’s in it.”
The budget also relies heavily on federal stimulus dollars and $116 million from the rainy day fund and Working Capital Reserve Fund to fill in the financial gap.
“If it were not for the [federal] recovery funds, we would have hundreds of millions of dollars of additional cuts to make on top of the already painful cuts,” said Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat who served as co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.
Cain described the overall budget as a “responsible budget” that reflects give and take from both sides.
“Although there is a lot to hate in it, we didn’t do anything without a lot of deliberation and a lot of thought,” she said.
It will take several days for legislative staffers to revise the budget plan before sending it to the full Legislature. Lawmakers will have an opportunity to propose changes, which Appropriations Committee members will likely resist.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, said he does not feel they will have to sell the budget to the GOP caucus because members have been kept informed throughout the process.
Piotti said all he and other Democratic leaders can do is discourage their members from attempting to amend a budget that took months to craft. Piotti is briefing lawmakers on the plan in hopes of answering questions before leadership seeks the super-majority vote needed to pass the budget.
“I think a two-thirds [vote] was a necessity,” Piotti said. “It was the only way it was going to work.”