On a party-line vote the majority Democrats in the Maine Legislature approved a bill to authorize the spending of over $1 billion of federal American Rescue Plan funds and Gov. Janet Mills signed it into law. The bill fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for emergency, or immediate, enactment, and the state will have to wait 90 days after the Legislature adjourns for it to go into effect.
Democrats split with Republicans over a portion of the bill that calls for project labor agreements covering about $20 million in affordable housing funds in the spending package. The agreements would require developers to use union workers on those building projects, which Republicans argue is anti-competitive and caters to special interests. Republicans also said they wanted to put more of the federal funds – $100 million instead of $80 million – toward the state’s unemployment trust fund to offset possible unemployment rate increases for businesses that laid off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Enhanced state and federal unemployment benefits paid out during the pandemic would trigger rate increases for employers without the offsets, but Democrats said the Legislature could add to the trust fund later in the year if more funding is needed to prevent the rate hikes.
Governor Mills, encouraged lawmakers last week to reach a bipartisan deal that would garner the support of at least two-thirds of the Legislature, allowing the bill to become law immediately and making the funds available quickly. With Monday’s votes, the bill will not become law until 90 days after the adjournment.
In final voting Monday, the House approved the bill, 70 to 49, while the Senate passed it 21-13.
The spending bill generated several last-minute amendments, some supported by Republicans, but they weren’t enough to gain enough support for the bill to become law immediately.
Republicans also argued the bill should send an additional $20 million to the state’s unemployment trust to offset possible rate increases for employers. Democrats supported sending $80 million to the fund, while Republicans wanted $100 million.
Overall, the legislation sends large amounts of funding to a range of programs, government agencies, public colleges and businesses. It includes large boosts for student loan repayment grants for health care professionals, while also focusing on infrastructure improvements, especially broadband internet expansion for rural and other underserved communities in Maine.
The Legislature adjourned around 9:00 PM Monday and will not return until January 2022 unless Governor Mills calls them back for another special session or unless all four major caucuses agree to call themselves back.
Governor Mills thanked both chambers just before they adjourned in a short speech, saying when the Legislature adjourned 16 months ago as the COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine there was much uncertainty.
“Although there have been many amendments and challenges with the American Rescue Plan bill, that bill will go a long ways towards restoring the lives and livelihoods of Maine people, businesses small and large, working families and children, giving people the right to stay here, the opportunity to make their way here in Maine,” Mills said.