AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in the Maine Legislature looked ready to pass a pared-down version of Gov. Janet Mills’ two-year budget proposal over Republican opposition ahead of a $1 billion windfall for state government in a federal stimulus package.
Passing a budget on rare simple-majority votes would be a break from recent Augusta precedent. It would be a flexing of Democratic majorities and an adjustment to the strain of the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers inked one painstaking short-term budget deal this month and will likely need another even after closing a two-year budget.
On Monday, Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, announced that a legislative panel would vote this week to advance an $8.2 billion document sustaining state agencies while stripping other initiatives in the Democratic governor’s January proposal except for increases in education funding and teacher retirement costs.
In the last decade, the Legislature has typically passed two-year budgets just before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 in last-minute deals between the parties to get the two-thirds majorities needed in both chambers to immediately enact bills. A final vote on this plan by April 1 would allow enough time for Democrats to enact the budget unilaterally by the end of June.
Democrats cited the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic and said they hoped Republicans would join them in passing a budget to sustain the agencies. Mills asked lawmakers in a letter to pass this “baseline” budget and wait until later this year to adjust spending to ever-changing revenue projections and meter out federal aid that is coming.
Minority Republicans were incensed. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said he was informed of the Democrats’ move on Monday morning through Republican budget panel members. He said the lack of a supermajority requirement would take away Republicans’ leverage to affect the budget, which they have hoped to trim.
“This isn’t how legislation is supposed to be done. This isn’t how even partisan legislation is supposed to be done,” he said. “There is a process that we should be going through.”
Democrats, who have largely controlled the Legislature for the past 50 years, were reliant on so-called majority budgets from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. The last two-year budget to be approved by simple majority was in 2005. Republicans passed a short-term budget with a simple majority when they controlled the Legislature in 2012 under former Gov. Paul LePage.
On Monday, Democrats defended their move by noting the Legislature routinely used to approve budgets earlier in the year. While Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the panel’s co-chair, hoped Republicans would join Democrats to pass the budget, she signaled her party was ready to move forward if not in order to “send a clear signal” to Mainers during the pandemic.
“I think, given the situation, the public health emergency, the economic emergency, the looming tourism season, that we really owe it to everybody in the state to be as predictable and continuous and as unmysterious as possible to give people some certainty,” she said.
The budget described Monday by Democrats falls just shy of the $8.4 billion spending mark originally proposed by Mills, which largely kept state spending flat but is still higher than the $8 billion budget enacted in 2019.
Passing a budget next week would require a series of parliamentary maneuvers as lawmakers are set to meet at the Augusta Civic Center, which has hosted pandemic floor sessions so far.
The Legislature would have to approve the budget by April 1 at the latest and then officially end the 2021 legislative session to enact it by the June 30 deadline. The Legislature would then likely be called back to work almost immediately to finish all other business.