Maine lawmakers OK 2-year budget after a few tense hours at the State House

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The State House in Augusta, as seen from Capitol Park.
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The Maine House of Representatives and Senate took initial votes Friday endorsing a two-year state budget worth just less than $8 billion.
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AUGUSTA, Maine — After some drawn-out State House drama, the Legislature sent a two-year state budget worth just less than $8 billion to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills late Friday night.

Initial tallies in each chamber fell short of the two-thirds support necessary for the budget to take effect when a new state fiscal year begins July 1. After the initial votes, negotiations over Republican support needed to enact the spending plan dragged into the night Friday.

But at about 9 p.m., the House of Representatives cast a decisive 104-38 vote to enact the budget. The Senate soon followed with a 25-9 vote.

Maine Public reports that Republican legislators worked to leverage their party’s votes on the budget bill for concessions on proposed changes to Maine’s workers’ compensation system that sparked partisan rancor last month.

The budget’s bottom line comes in just below the mark proposed by Mills, who rankled conservatives by asking for an 11 percent spending increase over the last budget and progressives by keeping a promise to not raise taxes, leaving school and municipal aid short of long-unmet funding goals.

The House endorsed the $7.987 billion two-year spending plan Friday morning in a 89-52 vote. All but two House Republicans — Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, and Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, who as Appropriations Committee members helped craft the budget deal — voted against the proposal. All House Democrats supported the bill.

The Senate later voted 22-12 in favor of the spending plan, just short of the two-thirds threshold. Appropriations Committee member Jim Hamper, R-Oxford, was the only Republican to vote for it.

But in the key enactment votes about 10 hours later, eight House Republicans and two independents reversed their earlier opposition to send the spending plan toward passage. At least three Republicans who had opposed the bill did not participate in the enactment vote. Three Senate Republicans also switched their positions on the enactment vote.

“Overall, this is a bipartisan budget,” MIllett said in a floor speech. “Our chore is not done, but the work before us is a good start.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, disagreed. “This is one of the most unsustainable budgets in the history of the state,” he said in a prepared statement. “Mark my words, we will have to do more work to address its shortcomings before this Legislature is finished.”

The budget deal, endorsed by the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, would hike K-12 education spending by $111 million and target $75 million at property tax relief by increasing aid to cities and towns while expanding the Homestead Exemption and another property tax credit.

Still, that will leave Maine short of key long-unmet statutory funding goals. It will remain $209 million short from funding 55 percent of essential school costs under the budget and go from giving 2 percent of state tax revenue to municipalities to 3.75 percent, short of a 5 percent goal.

The budget makes big changes in other areas. Maine will fund voter-approved Medicaid expansion, pay the cost of phasing in a $40,000 minimum teacher salary over three years and adding 62 more caseworkers to the state’s embattled child welfare system.

Republicans worked to shave the budget. The appropriations panel agreed to give the Maine Department of Education only 18 of the 38 additional positions that Mills sought and gave the higher education system an $18 million funding increase — $6 million less than Mills wanted.

Mills set the terms of the budget before she was elected, saying in her 2018 campaign that there would be no tax increase in it. She doubled down on that in January, as progressive groups led by the Maine Center for Economic Policy urged Democrats to partially undo tax cuts enshrined under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage to raise revenue from higher earners.

Despite strong Democratic majorities and largely symbolic votes to hike school and municipal aid, tax changes were never a meaningful topic of conversation with Mills and Republicans — who had to buy into the budget in a consensus process — standing firmly against them. The minority party is still questioning the spending level in the budget, which they barely moved.

“These are the priorities that Maine people have asked us to deliver on, and I am proud to work with the Legislature to have done so.” Mills said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate the work that members on both sides of the aisle have put into this process, and I look forward to signing this budget into law.”

BDN editor Robert Long contributed to this report.

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