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After Democrats passed a budget plan for the next two years on a party-line vote in late March, hope for bipartisan work in the Maine Legislature faded.
We, along with many others, worried that the Democrats’ majority budget would “poison the legislative atmosphere.”
We are pleased to see we were wrong. More importantly, we believe the $8.5 billion biennial budget, which was unanimously supported by members of the Appropriations Committee on Sunday, makes the right investments in Maine and its people.
The new spending plan, which replaces the budget backed by Democrats in late March, includes significant new investments, including the infusion of money into the state’s K-12 school funding formula to bring the state’s share to 55 percent by 2023, a target set in a 2004 referendum. It also includes funding to raise municipal revenue sharing back to 5 percent by 2023, which will further relieve financial pressure on Maine’s cities and towns.
In another effort to help municipal property tax payers, the budget increases the Homestead Exemption and Property Tax Fairness Credit. Many Maine taxpayers will receive a $300 COVID relief payment, dubbed “hazard pay.” These were priorities of Republican lawmakers after a previous budget included tax relief for businesses and unemployed workers.
Republicans also successfully negotiated provisions to raise reimbursements for direct care workers to 125 percent of the minimum wage, and to direct $20 million in relief to nursing homes, which were struggling even before the pandemic.
The budget, which the Legislature will consider this week, also includes funding to offer free school meals to all Maine students, funding to extend dental coverage to MaineCare recipients and it would eliminate state sales tax on menstrual products.
It includes $40 million to revitalize the Land for Maine’s Future Program, which helps conserve land for public use, and it would dramatically increase funding and staffing within the Department of Environmental Protection to address PFAS contamination, an increasingly widespread discovery of dangerous chemicals that are prevalent in Maine.
Sixty million dollars will go into the state’s budget stabilization, or rainy day, fund under the spending plan.
“Today, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee approved a bipartisan proposal that finally makes good on our longstanding commitment to Maine schools, property taxpayers and municipalities. It also responds to the hardships that Mainers experienced during this pandemic,” Senate President Troy Jackon said in a statement on Sunday.
House Speaker Ryan Fecteau took the unusual step of thanking Maine people for their input on the budget.
“I am proud of the Legislature for reaching a bipartisan agreement on Maine’s budget. Today, we address areas of great need for Mainers and we proactively invest in our state’s future … It is a true reflection of our shared Maine values.,” he said in the same statement. He added: “I also want to thank every person who testified in public hearings on a bill they cared about this year. Your voices helped steer the budget process.”
If we have a concern about this budget, it is that is uses what may be one-time funds — increased state revenue because of federal COVID stimulus spending that boosted state tax revenues (which is separate from funding that is being sent directly to states, tribes, counties and municipalities) — to pay for changes that we hope will become permanent, such as the increased revenue sharing, school funding and direct care worker payments along with expanded dental care and free school meals. Like our majority budget fears, perhaps these concerns won’t come to fruition.
Plus, the budget is separate from Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, her blueprint for spending the $1.1 billion in relief funds that will come to Maine through the American Rescue Plan, which was passed by Democrats in Congress earlier this year. The Mills plan, along with a borrowing package, will require legislative support.
The governor said she would like a two-thirds vote in support of this budget so school and municipal funding can be distributed quickly. If a budget is passed by two-thirds of the Legislature, it goes into effect when the governor signs it. A budget passed by a simple majority, on the other hand, doesn’t go into effect until 90 days after it is signed by the governor.
This compromise budget plan deserves strong bipartisan support from the full Legislature.