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Mills administration warns of budgetary 'breaking point' as lawmakers propose more spending

The sun rising over the State House in Augusta on April 18, 2024.
Kevin Miller
Maine Public
The sun rising over the State House in Augusta on April 18, 2024.

Maine's Legislature could vote Friday on millions of dollars in additional state spending even as the Mills administration warns that lawmakers are pushing the budget to the "breaking point."

The primary reason for this Friday's House and Senate floor sessions is so that lawmakers can vote on a half-dozen vetoes from Mills. Those include a high-profile measure to ban "bump stocks" and other rapid-fire modifications to semi-automatic guns as well as a bill that would increase the tax rate on the wealthiest Mainers.

But on Tuesday evening, members of the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee voted to tap into roughly $11 million in unspent money to fund dozens of additional initiatives. The bills represent roughly one-third of the measures that had received initial support by both chambers but that had not yet received any funding. They now face additional votes.

Those include providing $250,000 to free health clinics, creating a tracking system for rape test kits and establishing a civil rights unit within the attorney general's office. Other bills would provide $100,000 to help identify unidentified bodies and $200,000 for transitional housing for those recently released from jail.

While some of the committee votes were unanimous, Republicans opposed other measures. And prior to voting, longtime Republican Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, who has previously held top finance jobs in the state, expressed concerns that lawmakers weren't leaving any money on the table.

"To spend all but potentially $1.3 million of that unbudgeted balance in a $10.47 billion biennial budget to me is exercising no fiscal restraint and leaving a lot of questions for the incoming 132nd Legislature," Millett said.

The Mills administration had also pushed back against spending all of the excess money.

"The department continues to be very concerned that the budget is being pushed to the breaking point by the Legislature," Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services wrote in a letter to the committee before Tuesday's meeting. "The administration has long been warning of the need to save in order to meet existing commitments amid plateauing revenues."

Mills' office also said in a statement on Wednesday that while the governor recognizes the value of many of the funded programs, that support "must be balanced against the ability to sustain them."

"The governor’s office is reviewing the bills passed by the Appropriations Committee, but the governor is disappointed the committee chose not to heed her serious concerns about protecting the state’s long-term fiscal sustainability," spokesman Ben Goodman said in a statement. "In fact, the Committee appears to have done the exact opposite – spending beyond the $11.4 million available to them and then employing budget gimmicks like stripping fiscal notes, delaying effective dates, and raiding other special revenue accounts to spend more, which the Governor previously warned them not to do and which will push the State budget to the breaking point."

Democratic legislative leaders, meanwhile, praised the committee's votes to remove the bills from the "appropriations table," which is often referred to as the place where measures go to die for lack of funding.

“These investments will address immediate needs in our communities and represent careful consideration from legislators throughout the session," House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said in a statement. "By prioritizing initiatives that will improve health care, advance equitable outcomes and better educate our children, we are striving to create a Maine where everyone has a fair chance to thrive and succeed.”

Any of the newly funded bills given final approval by the Legislature on Friday would be sent to Mills for her consideration. Whether they become law depends on whether she signs them or, if not, whether legislative leaders find a way to call the 131st Legislature back into session on another date.