Maine legislators vote to adopt a two-year state budget

Democrats, including Governor Janet Mills, called the legislation a “continuing services”...
Democrats, including Governor Janet Mills, called the legislation a “continuing services” budget - no new programs, but a little more spending on existing ones to maintain commitments.(wabi)
Published: Mar. 31, 2023 at 6:13 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Maine (WMTW) - Maine state legislators worked late into evening Thursday to enact the biggest, most significant bill of their session, the biennial budget, and it passed along party lines, with the Democratic majorities prevailing.

The House, with a 14-seat Democratic majority, voted first to pass the nearly $9.9 billion billion spending plan, part one of the biennial budget, enacting it without any Republican votes in favor.

The Senate, where Democrats hold a nine-seat majority, followed suit.

During the debate, Rep. Melanie Sachs, (D), Freeport, House Chair of the Appropriations and Financial Services Committee, said total spending in the 411-page budget blueprint amounted to $9.885 billion.

Democrats, including Governor Janet Mills, called the legislation a “continuing services” budget - no new programs, but a little more spending on existing ones to maintain commitments.

For example, the budget maintains the state funding of 55% of PreK-12th grade public education and the sharing of 5% of state tax revenue with municipalities.

It also continues salary boosts -- $200 a month for childcare workers and a pay raise to $150 an hour for defense attorneys who represent indigent clients.

Afterward adopting the budget, the legislature adjourned its session, and with the governor signing the budget on Friday, it will take effect in 90 days, or by July 1st, the start of the new fiscal year.

Sen. Mike Tipping, (D) Penobscot, said he had voted to keep programs running from health care to housing.

Tipping said in an interview, “What this budget does is lets us work on those. It takes the threat of a state shutdown off the table and lets us work for people in Maine.”

Rep. Chris Kessler, (D) South Portland, said in an interview, “It keeps services going and allows us to make more informed decisions as we move forward under a lot less pressure.”

A new state revenue forecast expected May 1 will affect how the second part of the budget, with another $500 million in proposed spending, is handled.

The part one spending approved Thursday amounted to 95% of the total $10.3 billion proposed by Gov. Mills.

Kessler said, “Once we have the future revenue forecast, we can make the decisions that the Republicans would like to work on.”

Republicans argued the overall spending was too high and sought a commitment to work on income tax cuts, while also asserting the budget would exceed the cap established by the same 2005 law that obligated the state to cover 55% of education costs, a milestone achieved only in 2022, so the cap never came into play before.

Rep. Amy Arata, (R) New Gloucester, House Assistant Minority Leader, explained the cap limits budget growth to the rate of Maine’s personal income growth for the prior decade.

Arata told reporters, “It’s really important to Republicans also that we have a limit on how much we can spend. There needs to be an external limit. Because people always come to us with so many good ideas, and I’m not out here saying they’re all bad ideas and that all spending is terrible, but there needs to be an external limit.”

Republicans proposed $200 million in income tax cuts, a lowering of the lowest tax rate from 5.8% to 4.5% on the first $23,000 of income, saving individuals around $300 a year. But that amendment failed.

Sen. Rick Bennett, (R) Oxford, the amendment sponsor and sole Republican senator on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said, “We’ve got record amounts of money coming into the state coffers. We’ve been over-collecting on taxes, and we’re about to go through a spending cap, and if we’re going to do that, I think, we’re going to have to remember the taxpayers.”