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Maine Democrats advance majority budget after talks with GOP falter

The State House is seen at dawn during the final week of winter, Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The State House is seen at dawn during the final week of winter, Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine.

Later this week, Democrats at the State House are expected to enact a $9.8 billion baseline budget on party line votes, rejecting Republicans' request that an income tax cut and a study of Maine welfare programs be included in a separate spending bill.

Majority Democrats last week broke the state's next two-year budget into two parts.

The first is what they're calling a continuing services budget. It's designed to avert a government shutdown this summer by funding state operations as of July 1, if enacted by the end of the week.

That would leave time for lawmakers to negotiate a potential bipartisan agreement in the second part of the budget later this session.

While Republicans initially signaled support for the approach, they sought assurances that the second bill would include a $200 million income tax cut for low- and middle-income residents and a study of welfare programs.

Democrats on the budget committee rejected that contingency on Friday evening. Democratic House chair Rep. Melanie Sachs, of Freeport, said the continuing services budget should only contain funding for ongoing initiatives.

"And no promises or language about what is to become next. Because a continuing services budget cannot, and will not, be contingent on future negotiation or last-minute amendments," Sachs said.

Republicans sharply criticized the committee vote in prepared statements, arguing that targeted tax relief is a reasonable request amid ongoing revenue surpluses.

“I thought we were working well together and I expected an entirely different outcome. In addition to much needed tax reform, Republicans also prioritized workforce participation and restructuring welfare benefit programs that are currently keeping people from going back to work,” said Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a member of the budget committee.

“We offered several iterations of our priorities, came back to the table numerous times in an attempt to find common ground. I am deeply disappointed with the end result. A one-party budget does not protect the best interests of Maine citizens.”

The bill advanced by Democrats is roughly $500 million less than what Gov. Janet Mills proposed in January — and below a 20-year spending cap law that she proposed to bypass.

But the overall biennial budget will likely increase when lawmakers negotiate the second part of the spending plan later this spring.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.