AUGUSTA, Maine — A $983 million proposal on how to use COVID-19 relief funds provided by Congress passed on a majority vote without Republican support and was signed by Gov. Janet Mills Monday night, capping the end of a complicated legislative session.
Democrats and Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee split last week over the last-minute inclusion of a provision requiring $20 million of affordable housing projects be built by contractors who work with labor unions and the funding of a commission dedicated to ending racial inequities in the state. They were also at odds on whether to increase the amount of money going into the unemployment trust fund from $80 million to $100 million.
The 21-13 vote in the Maine Senate was preceded by a 32-2 vote to strip the emergency clause of the bill, paving the way for the simple majority vote. The lack of an emergency clause means that the bill will not take effect until 90 days from now, but allowed the large spending package to pass with a simple majority vote. Emergency clauses require the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers.
The Maine House of Representatives then supported the bill in a 75-55 vote, but the two chambers are officially at odds over the bill. The House overwhelmingly supported a provision from Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, raising the state’s share of retired teachers’ group accident, sickness or health insurance from 45 to 55 percent.
The bill was amended further after budget committee co-chair Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, introduced an amendment adding Federally Qualified Health Centers to the groups allowed to receive funding to recruit health care workers. The bill was enacted with similar totals when it went through the chamber again. Lawmakers were expected to adjourn Monday evening.
The outstanding question going into the afternoon was whether Mills would approve the bill after urging lawmakers to reach bipartisan agreement on the spending package last week. She was quiet throughout the day until Monday evening, when she released a statement saying the Legislature failed to “achieve any meaningful compromise” — but that was not enough to veto the bill outright.
“The people of Maine also expected a united front from this Legislature in putting these investments to work immediately and not ninety days from now,” Mills wrote. “Unfortunately, to my disappointment, the Legislature opted not to pursue this path, despite the broad bipartisan agreement on most provisions within the bill.”
Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, said the bill would make critical investments in reducing racial inequities, increasing wages and creating more accessible housing as Mainers recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We must acknowledge the many changes and sacrifices that many of you had to make to get through a difficult year,” she said during a floor speech.
Republicans hammered the public labor agreements provision in the bill, which would require certain projects to only go to firms that work with labor unions, something Mills’ administration has been critical of this session and Democrats have defended by saying it falls within the parameters of the $1.9 trillion relief bill Congress passed this spring.
“We don’t care who bids on housing, we just want the taxpayers’ money to be spent the best way it can,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said prior to the Senate vote. “It shouldn’t be over a third of it taken out and spent on a special interest group.”