AUGUSTA, Maine — Majority Democrats in the Maine Legislature voted late Wednesday to advance their plan to spend nearly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid, breaking with Republicans who withheld votes to endorse a smaller proposal.
The budget committee’s vote paved the way for the Democratic proposal to pass the Legislature on Monday, but the lack of a bipartisan deal would prevent any package from going immediately into law after being signed by Gov. Janet Mills, meaning it will take at least three months for the money provided under the latest $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill to become available.
The Democratic governor put forward a $1.1 billion plan for the aid in May, including more than a half-billion dollars for infrastructure and broadband, plus another $260 billion for short-term aid to businesses. But the package changed in recent days as criteria for disbursing the aid tightened relative to earlier estimates, reducing the amount of money available to lawmakers.
The end result on Wednesday was a $983 million package from legislative Democrats that omitted $50 million in transportation funding that was put into the state budget earlier this year. Other items were reduced to account for the topline change, but the majority party also decided to make late additions, including $1 million for a state commission on racial and tribal equity.
“This is just a really transformational bill for the state,” said Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the co-chair of the budget panel.
Republicans endorsed a slightly smaller proposal, omitting the late items from Democrats. The minority party also opposed a Democratic item to set aside $20 million of an agreed-upon $50 million for affordable housing projects for firms that ink agreements with unions.
It seemed likely early this week that Democrats and Republicans would easily come to a deal on federal aid. Despite fraught negotiations on state budget proposals earlier in the year, the parties had not drawn bright lines on federal aid in the months following Mills’ proposal.
But months of delay in disbursing the money are now likely unless party leaders negotiate over the bill before Monday, when the Legislature is expected to return to Augusta to approve it and take up a final round of vetoes from the governor.
The aid was part of a raft of federal money that kept budgets afloat in Maine and across the nation during the pandemic. A massive upward projection in state revenue led Mills and the Legislature to approve a $8.5 billion, two-year budget in late June that replaced a party-line spending roadmap advanced by Democrats in March.