AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats pushed a two-year budget through the Maine Legislature along party lines on Tuesday, setting up fraught negotiations with Republicans later in the spring over how to dole out hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus aid.
The $8.3 billion budget is the first two-year spending plan to pass by simple majorities in both chambers since 2005. Democrats unveiled their plan to go it alone last week just days after public hearings on Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal ended. Republicans were angered by the move, which effectively cut the minority party out of negotiations that typically lead to grand bargains approved in two-thirds votes in both chambers.
It was enacted in a 77-67 vote in the House and a 20-14 vote in the Senate, where two Democrats — Bill Diamond of Windham and Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro — voted with the Republicans. Before advancing the package last week, Democrats removed a new streaming tax that would have generated nearly $10 million over two years, but the move was not enough to assuage the minority party.
“It sounds like and feels like you don’t want input from the minority party or the unenrolled members sitting here today,” Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a longtime state official who serves on the budget committee, said in a floor speech.
Democrats advanced their own budget — which comes in just shy of Mills’ initial $8.4 billion proposal — after negotiations with Republicans over a short-term budget earlier this month were pushed to the brink amid the minority party’s insistence on more business tax breaks. The majority party has argued that a government shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic would be inexcusable, though Republicans counter that negotiations have barely begun.
“We’re voting on a budget that ensures we’re taking care of the state’s business and Maine people so our state can continue on this path,” said Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the budget panel’s co-chair, saying Maine’s economy appears to be recovering. “That is our responsibility as elected officials.”
The budget must be signed by Mills by Thursday to go into effect by the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1. Democrats had to technically adjourn the Legislature later Tuesday night to put the budget into effect by then. But the chambers approved motions to preserve bills and allow committees to continue working this week and beyond before calling themselves back.
The budget increases K-12 education funding and money for a teacher retirement fund. The budget uses $60 million from the state’s liquor contract fund to help fill an expected $650 million shortfall expected through 2023, although that number may change as state forecasts do.
It also reclassifies some state employees and allows the Department of Health and Human Services to fast-track emergency rules without having to demonstrate the threat to public health or safety. It includes an increased homestead exemption. An amendment from Rep. Sophia Warren, I-Scarborough, to direct the Maine Climate Council to seek funding for climate change initiatives was killed in the House.
After Mills signs the budget, the Legislature will turn its focus to bills left and gear up for another budget proposal from Mills once federal aid allocations are made to Maine. The state is expected to get $1 billion in direct aid alone under the stimulus bill passed earlier this month. Some is expected to replace money in the state budget, while other parts of it could go toward new programs.
“I hope, and fully expect, this important work can and will proceed in a bipartisan manner,” Mills said in a statement.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.