September 20, 2019
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Maine lawmakers settle on 2-year budget for just less than the $8 billion Mills proposed

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Gov. Janet Mills

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan deal on a two-year Maine budget just below Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed spending mark of $8 billion that would raise K-12 education spending and provide property tax relief without tax hikes won a legislative panel’s endorsement Wednesday.

It’s the capstone of the 2019 legislative session. The vote from the Legislature’s appropriations committee came one week before the Democratic-led Legislature is supposed to end work for the year, though some Republicans are threatening a fight over a controversial abortion bill.

The deal seems likely to get the required two-thirds votes in both chambers — likely on Friday — before it goes to Mills for approval. It won’t make everyone happy. Progressives hoped for changes to Maine’s tax code to meet long-unmet funding goals for education and municipal aid, while Republicans took dim views of Mills’ proposed 11 percent increase over the last budget.

Neither side made much headway on those points in negotiations over the two-year budget, which must be in place by July 1. The tax code remains unchanged and the budget is expected to come in at $7.987 billion. Eight Democrats and three Republicans backed the deal, while two House Republicans voted against it and one backed a version spending $31 million less.

“As is the case with all compromises and good governance, no one got everything they wanted,” Mills said in a statement, “but I applaud both Democrats and Republicans for working together to reach an agreement that makes critical investments in Maine’s future over the next two years.”

The 2019 budget process has been a sedate one relative to three straight rocky cycles under former Gov. Paul LePage, who presided over a three-day state government shutdown in 2017. While high points of budgets offered by the bombastic LePage were often ignored by lawmakers in both parties, Mills drew a key line that loomed over negotiations until the end.

Early in her tenure, she doubled down on a 2018 campaign pledge not to raise taxes in her first budget proposal. It meant that there would not be enough money to meet statutory goals of funding 55 percent of essential school costs and giving 5 percent of state tax revenue to cities and towns, though Democrats took votes on largely symbolic measures to do so.

In a statement, Garrett Martin, the executive director of the progressive Maine Center for Economic Policy, which proposed $518 million in tax hikes for higher earners in January, said the budget’s “failure to un-rig our tax code means these core commitments will remain underfunded.”

Still, the deal approved by the committee increased K-12 funding by $111 million, which was $15 million less than Mills’ proposal and $209 million short of the 55 percent threshold, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy. It increased revenue sharing to cities and towns from 2 percent to 3.75 percent over two years.

The latter item was part of a $75 million property tax relief package on top of Mills’ proposal that would also expand the Homestead Exemption and another property tax credit. The budget panel also agreed to phase in a minimum teacher salary of $40,000 over three years instead of two.

Republicans pushed to shave the budget in other areas. The committee agreed to give the Mills administration 18 of 38 additional positions requested in the education department and to a $18 million higher education funding increase that was $6 million less than what Mills wanted.

With a deal largely in place, the remaining fight may come down to pieces of legislation that the Legislature has passed but await funding, including a bill opposed by Republicans that would supplant a ban on federal abortion funding by using state money to cover abortions under MaineCare that would cost more than $600,000 over two years.

Democrats hold 89 House seats and would need no more than 101 votes in the chamber to get the required two-thirds support for the budget. Both chambers voted to send the abortion bill to Mills on Wednesday after short debates with all but six Democrats voting for it in the House and two Democrats in the Senate. All Republicans opposed it.

Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, one of the two Republicans to oppose the budget deal on Wednesday, hinted that passing that bill could lead her and some members of her party to hold out on the budget, saying “Maine has to take care of our most vulnerable citizens.”

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