© 2024 Maine Public | Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.

Democrats on legislative budget committee walk back controversial proposals

The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.

Democrats on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee reversed course on several controversial funding decisions as lawmakers race to complete their work for the year.

Tensions were high at the State House last week after Democrats on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee endorsed a budget that would have resulted in less money for highway repairs, dairy farm subsidies and a tax exemption for pensioners. But they restored that funding on Monday.

The budget change package also includes an additional $76 million for affordable and emergency housing programs, $26 million for nursing homes and nearly $20 million to increase mental and public health services. Among the other items highlighted by Democrats were $21 million to maintain the state's 55% share of K-12 funding and nearly $12 million in one-time grants for child care providers.

Committee co-chair Rep. Melanie Sachs of Freeport, who came under heavy criticism last week from Republicans for the earlier changes, said she was proud of the end result.

"This is a supplemental budget yet it has some amazing pieces and I really want to stress to people that much of this was good collaboration," Sachs said during the committee meeting. "But as I always say, reasonable people disagree. The majority budget is balanced fiscally and hopefully addresses those needs that need to be done right now."

Republicans on the committee advanced their own version of the supplemental budget that mirrors many of the initiatives in the Democrats' bill but with some minor changes or additions. Last week, the Republican members had blasted the committee's Democratic majority for holding votes on the budget at 3 a.m. on a Saturday.

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said he was pleased with the changes on Monday but said he remains concerned about short-term or one-time spending for major, ongoing needs. For instance, he said the state should provide higher, consistent levels of funding for nursing homes, particularly in rural areas where multiple homes have been shuttered or plan to close because of financial challenges.

"We need to fix these problems, we need to solve these crises," Bennett said. "Even by making them . . . ongoing expenses isn't going to solve the crises, but it at least puts them on the path of people knowing they will have a certain amount of support and that it is going to continue."

The bill now goes to the full House and Senate. It was unclear Monday whether the bill would get enough Republican support to pass with a two-thirds margin, which is needed for the spending plan to take immediate effect. If it passed with only majority support, the spending plan would not go into effect until after the new fiscal year begins, which could affect funding for some programs unless lawmakers make adjustments.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said she welcomes many of Monday's changes, particularly the decision to restore $60 million in transportation funding as well as the supports for the dairy industry and pensioners. Maine's dairy industry has been urging lawmakers to increase the price support payments to farms by 25% to help them weather rising costs.

“The governor does remain concerned about added spending beyond what she proposed in her change package — spending that, as much as she agrees with it from a policy perspective, may not be fiscally sustainable in the long term," spokesman Scott Ogden said in a statement. "Her Administration will have to take a hard look at the budget at the start of the next legislative session to make sure that the State of Maine is able to meet its commitments, both in the short- and long-term. At this point, though, the supplemental budget as approved by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee today is not at risk of a veto by the Governor. She hopes the Legislature will not amend the package passed by the committee in any significant way because doing so would increase the likelihood of a veto.”

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, also praised the decision to restore funding levels to those programs.

“Despite earlier, good-faith efforts to develop a budget that could earn consensus support, we recognized that we needed to take another look and reconsider our approach," Talbot Ross said in a statement. "Over the past week, we have done just that - and today the committee voted out a budget that delivers for Mainers and deserves broad based support.”

The debate over state spending isn't over, however.

In addition to House and Senate votes on the supplemental budget bill, the House is also slated to take up a a separate bill that passed the Senate last week proposing roughly $100 million for storm relief, nursing homes and other initiatives.

Mills had initially proposed using $60 million from Maine's nearly $1 billion Rainy Day Fund to pay for infrastructure repairs due to the recent storms. But late last week, Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash and Republican Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford proposed — and the full Senate approved — a modified version of that bill.

The Bennett-Jackson proposal would still tap $60 million from the Rainy Day Fund for infrastructure repairs and to assist businesses impacted by the recent severe storms. But the amendment would require the state to evenly split that money between coastal and inland communities.

The proposal also seeks to tap $31 million from a budget surplus to help shore up struggling nursing homes and $5 million for Maine's Veterans Homes. It was unclear Monday how that measure will fare in the Democratic-controlled House, however.

The 2024 legislative session is slated to end on Wednesday. Mills has made clear that she will not call the Legislature back for a special session to complete work on any unfinished bills, however, and it appears unlikely that Democrats can muster enough support among Republicans in both chambers to call the full Legislature back to Augusta after Wednesday.