AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills urged Maine lawmakers to keep working on a nearly $1 billion bill allocating federal COVID-19 aid on Thursday after a late-night vote that saw the two parties split as Democrats added new items opposed by Republicans.
Majority Democrats in the Legislature moved a $983 million package forward Wednesday that was reduced from Mills’ original $1.1 billion proposal after criteria changed. The reduced package included some last-minute changes that put them at odds with Republicans, who moved their own package forward ahead of scheduled votes at the State House on Monday.
It sets up a complicated position for Mills. While her fellow Democrats can go it alone to pass their bill, it would take at least three months for the money to be available. The governor wants a bipartisan deal that would free funds up immediately and she did not support certain items included by Democrats in the new bill.
“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,” Mills said in a statement urging a bipartisan deal.
Mills could line-item veto individual spending items in the package, but it would not make the bill pass any faster. While both sides say talks will continue through the weekend, Democrats and Republicans have drawn lines on some items that sets them up for a collision.
A key issue is how Democrats handled $50 million for the building or rehabilitating affordable housing units, setting $20 million aside for firms that ink bargaining agreements with labor unions. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said that language is a “no-go” for Republicans, who want to make the $50 million available to any firm.
Timberlake said he was working with Mills’ office to remove that from the bill. Earlier this year, her administration expressed concerns that contractors would not agree to build housing under similar requirements. Other additions advanced this week were also a surprise to Republicans including $1 million for a state commission on racial and tribal equity, Timberlake said.
“That wasn’t part of our agreement,” he said.
He expected conversations to continue over the weekend and hoped the other side would be willing to compromise on other issues, including increasing money meant to prevent businesses from seeing a spike in unemployment insurance taxes from $80 million to $100 million.
But Democrats might not be willing to budge. Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who co-chairs the budget committee, said Thursday that Democrats already compromised on the labor agreements by reducing the amount of money set aside. She said the money for the racial and tribal commission is a major priority for the party.
A delay in releasing funds would be “disappointing” but Breen said work around setting up some programs to handle the money would need to happen before it could be spent anyway. Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the panel’s other co-chair, dismissed the idea that their proposals were new, saying associated bills had been talked about for months in public hearings.
“I think we’ve been very transparent and very straightforward,” she said.