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The Legislature’s budget committee on Wednesday passed a plan for spending the nearly $1 billion that will be coming to Maine as part of federal COVID relief funds.
While the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan directs money to many important areas — business relief, broadband infrastructure, workforce attraction, career training, child care and many others — the committee vote was largely along party lines. If the bill gets a similar partisan vote in the full Legislature, it will delay the distribution of funds by three months.
This should be unacceptable to leaders of both parties, and they should return to the negotiating table to craft a plan that will garner much stronger support. If more than two-thirds of legislators support L.D. 1733, the money can begin flowing as soon as Gov. Janet Mills signs it into law.
That should be the outcome that all legislative leaders are striving for.
“Sadly, although the parties agreed on 95 percent of the bill, the vote was along party lines, likely previewing a similar partisan vote on the floor of both the House and Senate. Without a strong, bipartisan vote from [two-thirds] of the Legislature, this important bill loses its emergency nature and, as a result, would not take effect for ninety days, postponing the investment of millions of dollars in workforce training, health insurance subsidies, child care infrastructure and other critical needs,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a Thursday morning press release.
“This delay would have a substantial and serious negative effect on Maine people, on Maine businesses and on our economic recovery. Every day that passes where this bill is not law is one more day that we aren’t putting these transformational investments to work for Maine people. If we allow three more months to pass simply because we couldn’t find consensus, then that could mean the difference between a business surviving or failing, between a parent being able to afford child care so they can go back to work or not, between expanding broadband to rural communities or not. The stakes are high. The implications are real.”
We share the governor’s sentiments.
The fact that there is consensus on most of the plan shows that the few remaining disagreements can — and must — be resolved.
The biggest disagreement is over what are known as project labor agreements, which are requirements that publicly funded projects hire union labor. The plan supported by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee includes a stipulation that $20 million worth of new affordable housing projects — out of a total of $50 million — should be set aside for companies with labor union agreements. The American Rescue Plan encourages PLAs for some projects funded with the federal relief money.
The late inclusion of PLA language by Democrats is unacceptable to Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake told the BDN editorial board. If this provision is removed and other small changes are made, he predicted that the bill would gain strong bipartisan support.
The Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan is not the place to revive such partisan policy changes. Nor should this become a repeat of the circuitous negotiations on a supplemental budget earlier this year when Republicans struggled to accept a win over taxation of benefits under the Paycheck Protection Plan.
Instead, the recent bipartisan work on the state’s updated biennial budget — which easily passed the Legislature — is a model to follow.
The Legislature is scheduled to convene on Monday, so time is short. Neither party should give up on working to reach an agreement to ensure this legislation is passed by a strong bipartisan majority so relief funds can soon go to Maine businesses and individuals that are continuing to struggle as a result of the COVID pandemic.