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Maine Dems are poised to pass a $9.8 billion spending plan this week with little to no GOP support

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

The political rhetoric is heating up in Augusta as lawmakers prepare to vote on an interim budget later this week.

Republicans said Tuesday that they were negotiating in good faith on a plan to pass a "baseline" budget this week in return for assurances that Democrats would agree to cut income taxes by at least $200 million in a second budget bill. But Democratic leaders and budget negotiators rejected that demand, saying it would be inappropriate to include a tax cut requirement in a budget that essentially aims to maintain the status quo.

As a result, Democrats are poised to pass a $9.8 billion spending plan on Thursday with little to no Republican support. During a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Senate GOP Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said that move by Democrats signals to him that, despite a sizable surplus, the party in control of the State House is not interested in providing Maine people with tax relief this session.

"What we were proposing is fund everything that we need to do in state government and then use the excess to provide some meaningful tax relief so that we're no longer the third-highest taxed state in the country,” Stewart said. “And that got shot down."

Stewart and Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who sits on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, called the GOP proposal “modest” given the state’s current revenue projections. Republicans have been talking for months about their desire for tax cuts. But it wasn’t until last week that they presented Democratic leaders and Gov. Janet Mills with a formal proposal of at least $200 million tax cut.

The two Democratic co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston and Rep. Melanie Sachs of Freeport, said later Tuesday that a baseline or "continuing services" budget provides certainty to towns, schools and Maine citizens by eliminating the prospect of a government shutdown on July 1. If they act by Saturday, Democrats can pass a budget bill for the next two-year cycle with only majority votes in both the House and Senate. But after April 1, it would take two-thirds or super-majority votes in both chambers to enact a spending plan that would take effect before the new fiscal year begins on July 1. Otherwise, Maine state government would be forced to shut down, which last happened in 2017.

But once the baseline budget is passed, Rotundo and Sachs said, lawmakers can decide how to spend -- or not spend -- any additional revenues in a second budget bill later this spring.

"So we'll have plenty of opportunity in the Part 2 budget, as that's negotiated, to talk about the priorities that our caucus has and the Republican caucus has,” Rotundo said.

"And many of them are shared priorities,” added Sachs.