The biggest debate between lawmakers was this week in Augusta.
Republicans indicated early in the week that they were negotiating in good faith on a plan to pass a “baseline” budget this week in return for assurances that Democrats would agree to cut income taxes by at least $200 million in a second budget bill. But Democratic leaders and budget negotiators rejected that demand, saying it would be inappropriate to include a tax cut requirement in a budget that essentially aims to maintain the status quo.
As a result, Democrats positioned themselves to pass a $9.8 billion spending plan. During a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Senate GOP Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said that move by Democrats signals to him that, despite a sizable surplus, the party in control of the State House is not interested in providing Maine people with tax relief this session.
“What we were proposing is fund everything that we need to do in state government and then use the excess to provide some meaningful tax relief so that we’re no longer the third-highest taxed state in the country,” Stewart said. “And that got shot down.”
Stewart and Sen. Rick Bennett, an Oxford Republican who sits on the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, called the GOP proposal “modest” given the state’s current revenue projections. Republicans have been talking for months about their desire for tax cuts. But it wasn’t until last week that they presented Democratic leaders and Gov. Janet Mills with a formal proposal of at least $200 million tax cut.
The two Democratic co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston and Rep. Melanie Sachs of Freeport, said later Tuesday that a baseline or “continuing services” budget provides certainty to towns, schools and Maine citizens by eliminating the prospect of a government shutdown on July 1.
Late Thursday evening, Democrats in the Maine Legislature pushed through a nearly $10 billion, two-year state budget that prevents any government shutdown, but angered Republicans and virtually assures partisan rancor moving forward.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross reprimanded Republicans repeatedly not to question Democrats, who control both legislative chambers, during an emotional debate preceding the first budget vote Thursday evening. The Senate followed suit in approving the budget on party-line votes.
The strategy of adopting a basic budget on a simple majority vote early in the legislative session prevents Republicans from using the threat of a state government shutdown as an 11th-hour negotiating tactic.
Democrats said approval of a budget with no new programs preserves Republicans’ negotiating clout for additional spending proposals to be considered later in a supplemental budget. But that didn’t assuage the resentment of Republicans who were cut out of the process after negotiations broke down.
Sen. Trey Stewart, the chamber’s Republican leader, said Democrats “simply aren’t interested in allowing the minority party to have any sort of meaningful seat at the negotiation table.”
The Democratic maneuver required lawmakers to adjourn to allow the budget to go into effect 90 days later, on July 1, without a two-thirds majority approval. Then lawmakers will reconvene to deal with hundreds of pending bills, as well as a supplemental budget with any new spending initiatives.
The budget advanced by majority Democrats would continue to fund 55% of public education costs, universal free school meals and revenue sharing with municipalities, among other things.
Democrats and their allies said the early vote ensures the government will continue operations and provides an opportunity for both parties to work on a supplemental budget to address extra proposals later.
The process mirrors 2021, when Democrats passed a majority budget over the objection of Republicans. A bipartisan revision was later adopted.
If lawmakers were to wait until later in the session to approve the budget, a two-thirds majority would be required for provisions to go into effect in time for the new fiscal year.