What To Look For In The Maine Legislature's Two-Year Spending Package

May 28, 2019

After weeks of negotiations, mostly in private, the legislature’s budget writing Appropriations Committee is within striking distance of reaching an agreement on a two-year spending package that would take effect July 1. But, so far, no agreement.

Maine Public Radio’s senior political reporter Mal Leary join host Nora Flaherty on All Things Considered to explain the importance of the spending package.

After weeks of negotiations mostly in private the legislature's budget writing appropriations committees within striking distance of reaching agreement on a two year spending package that could take effect July 1st but no agreement yet. Maine Public Radio's senior political reporter Mallory joins me now from Augusta.

Nora Flaherty: Mal are they going to reach a deal?

Mal Leary: That's a question, Nora, that's being asked by a lot of people at the State House. There's all kinds of lobbyists from various interest groups that are milling around on the second floor of the Capitol as various state agencies officials. They want to be there to answer any questions about their budget that may come up during these private negotiations that are under way in the back room. Will they reach an agreement? Well it hasn't happened yet but there's no question there's been a lot of progress made. There's been unanimous votes on the Committee on most of the around $8 billion budget or so that's in that state two year budget. But as the old saying goes the devil is in the details and all the details have not been ironed out.

So it's close but not yet. What are some of the big sticking point issues that the Committee has reached agreement on?

Well first most of the budget is not contentious. It's something we forget when we report this. It's paying the bills for state government programs like law enforcement, the courts, the legislature itself and all of those many services that we call on state government for. I'd guess somewhere around 90 percent of the budget items have been agreed to.

But on some of the big programs there are always disagreements. But the Committee has reached agreement on several of them. For example, earlier this week they agreed on a funding level for the Medicaid expansion that the voters approved a couple years ago. That was an area where there was certain - a lot of uncertainty about how much it would cost. But agreement was reached.

Another major item that was voted into the budget was the school funding subsidy. That's for public schools. The panel adopted the level proposed by Governor Mills. But there are still many issues that are being discussed that could cause problems.

So from what you're hearing, what is holding up a final agreement?

This is a classic problem happens when they're working on a budget. It sounds simple but it isn't. The strong support for more property tax relief from both political parties. But how you provide that relief is a what is a question that hasn't been solved. Some want direct payments to tax payers. Others want to increase municipal revenue sharing, and I've heard some argue for a combination of both. The problem of course is that there's not enough money to do everything that the lawmakers would like to do.

Republicans have made it clear they want the overall size of the budget reduced. Now Governor Mills is proposing increased staffing in several agencies like the Department of Education. And Republicans say some of the increase she wants needs to be paired down. That's a lengthy process and how long it's going to take is uncertain, as they go through these dozens of positions and say 'yes we'll fund this one. And no we won't fund that one.'

So a lot of people on Appropriations have said they would like to get this done tonight. Is that going to happen?

I'm not that good a soothsayer. They're certainly trying. They've been working hard. But I don't think anyone is sure on the Committee that they will finish up tonight. There's been talk of meeting on Saturday if they think they can finalize a deal, but the reality is no one wants to take part of their weekend unless they're sure they're going to get done. So we won't know if their deal is finally hammered out till they finally come out in public and make the motion to finally close the budget.

Originally published May 24, 2019 at 6:22 p.m. ET.