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Gov. Janet Mills to lawmakers: finish your work by Wednesday

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, right, with Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill, greets lawmakers prior to delivering her State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, right, with Chief Justice Valerie Stanfill, greets lawmakers prior to delivering her State of the State address, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills is ratcheting up the pressure on state lawmakers to complete their work by midweek and accusing some legislators of endangering a storm relief package with a last-minute attempt to fund other initiatives.

In a letter sent Tuesday morning, Mills said she's heard that some lawmakers are asking if she would agree to extend the current session by calling the Legislature back to Augusta.

"I want to be clear: the answer is an unequivocal no," Mills, a former state lawmaker herself, wrote in the terse, three-sentence letter. "The Legislature must find a way to complete its work, including passing a supplemental budget, before statutory adjournment."

At the same time, the Mills administration is pushing back hard against an effort originating from the Senate to add tens of millions of dollars to a storm relief bill for unrelated programs.

Mills had proposed tapping $60 million of the state's roughly $1 billion Rainy Day Fund to help communities rebuild from a series of winter storms that caused extensive flooding, storm surge and other damage. But a bipartisan group of senators — including Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash — have added funding for nursing homes, to increase the minimum salaries of ed tech workers and other staff in K-12 schools, for mental health programs and for other initiatives.

Mills said that the proposals, if enacted, would "blow a hole in the state budget" and force lawmakers to make cuts in other areas next year.

“This is another 11th hour, multimillion-dollar amendment crafted outside of the budget process, behind closed doors, without public input, and without the consultation of me, the Speaker of the House, or my Administration," Mills said. "It entangles more than $100 million of unrelated, ongoing spending with my storm relief bill, which is exactly what I wanted to avoid when I introduced it as a standalone bill months ago."

Budgetary tugs-of-war are common in the final days of the legislative session, even when a single party controls the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature. Those financial fights frequently extend to other policy areas as lawmakers and the chief executive — who has the power both to veto policy bills and to line-item veto dollar figures in a budget bill — seek leverage for their priorities.

This year, some progressive Democrats have been frustrated that Mills' budget change package leaves surplus money on the table at a time when they say there are pressing unmet needs.

Speaking on support of the latest changes on Thursday night, Democratic Sen. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth acknowledged that the conversations over unmet needs will continue under the State House dome. But Grohoski said supporting the additional funding sends a clear, bipartisan message about addressing those needs.

"I feel very strongly that this body has an opportunity to do something truly historic for the people of Maine when we act together — not together in our own parties, not together in our own regions of the state but together as a whole," Grohoski said. "And it doesn't matter to me that this bill may have inconsistencies with the budget. I think we all know that there are ways to work those things out."

Mills has appeared more closely aligned with House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross on budgetary issues in recent weeks than with Democrats in the Senate. When it takes up the storm relief bill, the House could strip the Senate amendments from the bill.

The House and Senate had taken up a joint resolution on Monday that would keep alive — or "carry over," in legislative speak — any unfinished bills for a potential special session. But without a special session, any unresolved measures will die on the vine whenever the Legislature adjourns, likely late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.

In addition, lawmakers are still debating several major gun bills, changes to Maine's marijuana laws and a slew of other measures.

The budget-writing committee endorsed a change package on Monday after removing several earlier, controversial changes that would have led to less funding for highway repairs and a dairy farm subsidy program while scaling back planned tax exemptions for pensioners. The full House and Senate have yet to vote on the supplemental budget bill.

Legislative leaders could try to call a special session on their own. But that would take approval from two-thirds of members of in the Democratic and Republican caucuses from each chamber. And Republicans have made clear that they're not interested in an extended session.