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Maine Democrats pass nearly $10 billion budget after partisan debate

FILE - The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - The Maine State House is seen at dawn from Capitol Park on Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Democrats in the Maine Legislature used their majority status to push through a nearly $10 billion state budget on Thursday that maintains existing programs and remove the possibility of a government shutdown this summer.

But Republicans accused Democrats of ignoring struggling Maine taxpayers and of casting a partisan shroud over the legislative session.

Democrats are describing the $9.8 billion spending plan as a baseline budget because it funds current programs without adding any major new initiatives. The budget continues covering 55 percent of K-12 education costs and maintains the current levels of tax dollars that flow back to municipalities in the form of "revenue sharing.” It also continues providing free community college tuition to recent high school grads as well as free school lunches to all K-12 students – two recent but costly initiatives that received bipartisan support in the past.

Democratic Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, co-chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said the Democrats’ approach offers stability and assurances to schools and local governments. Speaking on the floor before several party-line votes on the measure, Rotundo said it also allows the parties to continue negotiating on other spending, including potential tax cuts, without the threat of failing to pass a state budget.

"At the end of the day, this common-sense continuing services budget is about keeping the lights on and ensuring there won't be a government shutdown on July 1,” Rotundo said. “Having lived through a government shutdown and having witnessed how it impacts the people of Maine, as well as small businesses and communities of this state, I believe a shutdown should be avoided at all costs."

But Republicans accused Democrats of stoking fears about a government shutdown as an excuse to sideline them and to avoid tax-cut negotiations. Saturday was the deadline to pass a so-called "majority budget," otherwise Democrats would need Republican support to pass an emergency budget that would take effect on July 1st.

Republicans had wanted Democratic assurances that any separate spending bill negotiated later this spring would include at least $200 million in income tax cuts. GOP leaders described the cuts as "modest" given Maine's roughly $10 billion budget and said it would help chip away at Maine’s reputation as a high-tax state.

Rep. Sawin Millett, a Waterford Republican who has spent decades helping craft budgets in both the legislative and executive branches, was among those who questioned why Democrats gave up on a two-thirds budget. Millett serves on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee and said the body had been working well together until things suddenly changed late last week.

"I've been through shutdown periods. Nobody wins in a shutdown,” Millett said during a Republican press conference after the party-line House vote. “Nobody wins in this kind of budget charade. It's truly disappointing. I think we have better people. I think there are people across the aisle who would feel similarly if allowed to exercise their independent judgment. It's unfortunate and I hope we learn from it."

In a parliamentary procedure, the House and Senate then officially adjourned the current legislative session – roughly 2 ½ months earlier than scheduled – after giving final approval to the budget bill. Gov. Janet Mills is expected to sign the interim budget into law and then quickly call the Legislature back into session, effectively allowing lawmakers to resume work.

It's unclear how partisan tensions over the baseline budget will affect the tenor in Augusta as lawmakers work through more than 2,000 additional bills in the coming months.

House Minority Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said he had sensed more cooperation and optimism in the past several months but acknowledges “there are some very upset feelings right now” after the majority budget.

“I can only speak for myself and how I legislate, and that’s by the policy every time. I look at everything by the policy,” Faulkingham said. “But I do know when something like this happens, it creates bitterness.”

But House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, called the partial budget “a win for Maine families and for responsible state government” because it continues to fund essential services.

“Additionally, this two-part budget removes the political gamesmanship from ongoing discussions regarding new spending,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “It allows lawmakers to have the time and space needed to answer the essential question of what more can we do to ensure we are meeting the needs of all Maine families.”

This is the second straight session during which Democrats have passed a “majority budget,” a tactic that has been only used a few other times in recent decades. But while Republicans also strongly objected to the passage of a majority budget in 2021, the two sides subsequently worked together months later to craft a bipartisan, supplemental spending plan.