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Legislature passes spending bill, gun control measures after marathon session

The sun rising over the State House in Augusta on April 18, 2024.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
The sun rises over the Maine State House on April 18, 2024, after lawmakers worked through the night to wrap up the 2024 legislative session.

State lawmakers finalized a spending plan early Thursday morning that funnels hundreds of millions into schools, nursing homes, affordable housing and storm-battered communities.

But the debate also revealed major divisions between Gov. Janet Mills and some members of her Democratic caucus, who argued the state should be using more of its surplus money to help school employees, state workers and struggling nursing homes.

"We should stand up together and say, 'No, we're not walking away, we're not going to have arbitrary deadlines put on us that make us forget about these people,'" said Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who led the unsuccessful fight for a more robust spending package. "Because I feel strongly, strongly that there is still time to do the right thing . . . regardless of what anyone in any other chamber or any other floor of this institution tells us."

In the end, Jackson and his allies relented after an hours-long delay. The supplemental budget received final approval in the Senate on a 19-14 vote just after 5 a.m. Thursday. The bill includes:

  • $76 million for affordable and emergency housing programs
  • $50 million to repair working waterfront assets, culverts, water systems and other infrastructure damaged by recent storms
  • $26 million for nursing homes
  • Nearly $20 million to increase mental and public health services
  • $21million to maintain the state's 55% share of K-12 funding
  • Nearly $12 million in one-time grants for child care providers

Mills, a former lawmaker who served on the Legislature's budget budget-writing committee, said in a statement that she was pleased with the final package but did not mention the internal Democratic tensions over spending priorities.

“The budget makes balanced investments in child care, child protection, nursing homes, housing, public safety, and other vital needs that will improve the lives of Maine people," Mills said. "Importantly, it also includes critical relief for Maine communities recovering from the severe storms in December and January – relief that I am directing my Administration to begin distributing as soon as is statutorily possible. I look forward to signing this budget into law.”

Republicans voted against the spending plan. Multiple GOP lawmakers accused the Democratic majority of allowing Mills to set the Legislature's priorities and of failing to provide long-term solutions to major problems, such as the closure of nursing homes.

"And yet we have loads of money and record, record amounts of surplus and we bow to the altar of one-time funds in order not to solve immediate crises but in order to gloss it all over," said Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

The hours-long parliamentary maneuvering around the supplemental budget delayed the adjournment of what was supposed to be the final day of the 2024 legislative session. As the day dragged past midnight and then into the early-morning hours, bleary-eyed lawmakers, lobbyists and activists roamed the State House or napped in chairs as they waited for the House and Senate to reconcile their differences and complete the work.

Earlier in the day, lawmakers gave final approval to a suite of gun control measures roughly six months after the worst mass shooting in Maine history made gun safety a top political issue of the legislative session.

One bill, LD 2238, will require buyers who purchase from a licensed firearms dealer to wait 72 hours before picking up their guns. Another bill, LD 2086, bans the sale in Maine of "bump stocks" and other mechanical or electronic devices that allow a semi-automatic firearm to function more like a machine gun.

Opponents said the 72-hour waiting period would not have prevented last October's mass shooting in Lewiston that left 18 dead. But supporters like Democratic Sen. Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth predicted that the delay will help deter impulsive decisions that can end in suicide or homicide.

"This legislation doesn't look backward," Carney said. "It looks forward at how we can prevent suicide and harmful behavior going forward."

Lawmakers also passed a bill sponsored by Mills, LD 2224, that will require background checks on all private gun sales that were advertised online or in print. Anotherprovision of the billwould make it a felony offense to "recklessly" sell a firearm to a prohibited person.

The bill also seeks to remove a perceived barrier to police utilizing the state's "yellow flag" gun confiscation law by allowing police to take a potentially dangerous person into "protective custody" even if they have not committed a crime. The change is a direct response to the fact that police did not attempt to yellow flag the Lewiston gunman, in part, because they felt the did not have legal grounds to take him into protective custody in order to bring him for a mental health evaluation.

But it wasn't a total victory for gun control advocates. Lawmakers did not vote on another priority for those groups: a more sweeping "red flag" bill that allows family members to directly petition a judge to order a potentially dangerous person to temporarily surrender their guns. Maine's yellow flag process must start with police and also requires an assessment by a medical professional.

Gun control advocates praised the changes.

“Maine has taken significant steps forward in preventing gun violence and protecting Maine lives,” Nacole Palmer, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said in a statement. “By expanding background checks, requiring a 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of firearms and banning bump stocks, the Maine Legislature has listened to the people of Maine and made our state safer. We are now hopeful that Gov. Mills will sign these important reforms into law.”

The gun bills now go Mills' desk for her consideration.

Mills has 10 days to sign, veto or allow the bills to become law without her signature. She is expected to sign her administration-sponsored bill tweaking Maine's yellow flag law and expanding background checks. But Mills — a moderate Democrat who has opposed some gun control measures in the past — has not commented on the 72-hour waiting period or the bill banning bump stocks.