House members sit at socially-distanced desks spread across the main auditorium during Tuesday’s legislative session at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — In a series of largely party-line votes, the Legislature approved a new two-year, $8.3 billion state budget during a session at the Augusta Civic Center on Tuesday.

The votes came after Democrats, who hold the majority, pushed forward with the budget despite objections from minority Republicans who have said the process is being rushed and their voices are being ignored.

“This farce cannot become the new normal,” said Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. Others complained of the loss of bipartisanship in the Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers.

“This was done without deliberation, negotiation, or collaboration,” Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake said in a statement Tuesday night. “Taking this approach and silencing the voices of more than a half-million Mainers is simply wrong. This is why this tactic is almost never used, and why, when it is used, it does great harm to the legislative process indefinitely.”

Democrats argued, however, that their budget is a “back to basics” proposal and a good starting point for ongoing work on a separate, supplemental budget that will be needed as the state adjusts to changing tax revenues and an anticipated tranche of more than $1 billion in federal pandemic relief aid.

Soon after the vote, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said she would sign the budget into law when it reached her desk but noted that work on the state’s finances is not over.

“This will not be the end of budget discussions for this biennium,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “There is much more work to be done. In the coming weeks, the non-partisan Revenue Forecasting Committee will meet to provide an updated projection of Maine’s revenues, and my administration is expecting to receive guidance from the federal government about the allowable uses of federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.”

Democrats argued Tuesday that passing the budget now avoids the risk of a state government shutdown had the parties not reached an agreement by the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, hammers the gavel during the legislative session Tuesday at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the Senate chair of the budget-writing committee, said the budget did not include any new taxes or any new spending programs, but it did alleviate unnecessary anxiety for a pandemic-weary state.

“2020 unleashed chaos, tragedy, uncertainty and hardship into the lives of thousands of Maine people, communities, businesses and organizations,” Breen said. “Lawmakers have the opportunity to ensure 2021 isn’t more of the same.”

She said the budget maintains key state programs, including revenue sharing for cities and towns, and funding for public schools. The budget also protects important funding for the state’s homestead exemption, a property tax relief program that allows homeowners to deduct the first $25,000 of their home’s assessment from property taxes.

Other key provisions of the budget bill include an additional $45 million for public schools, bringing the state’s share of school funding to 51.83 percent. The budget bill also maintains a $5 million increase for organizations that provide aid to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, and a provision that will see the state share 3.75 percent of sales and income tax revenue with municipal governments.

Sen. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, said the Legislature would still have to work in a bipartisan way to move forward with any new spending proposals or any other emergency legislation. She said voting for the budget Tuesday only took the leverage of a government shutdown off the table.

“And in this year, unlike any year in the last century, with the level of uncertainty, frankly, the level of exhaustion that Mainers have experienced, this is the year we should say, ‘No we we are not playing brinksmanship, we are not threatening to shutdown the vital services of Maine’s government to play this political game,'” Sanborn said.

Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, speaks against the proposed budget before its passage Tuesday. Arata, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said, “This farce cannot become the new normal.”  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

An initial move by Republicans to send the bill back to committee Tuesday was defeated on a 78-64 vote. Democrats hold 80 seats in the 151-seat House and 22 seats in the 35-seat Senate.

A similar effort to send the bill back in the Senate also failed, and the upper chamber approved the bill on a 20-14 vote. On the final vote only two Democrats in the Senate, Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham and Chloe Maxmin, of Nobleboro, opposed the bill. Diamond said it was a matter of principle for him to seek a bipartisan and supermajority budget.

The final vote on the bill in the House was 77 -67.

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, called the legislation “a bullied budget.”

“I had hoped we would step back from the edge of partisan turmoil and come together in the coming weeks to do the hard and aggravating work of negotiating a complete biennial budget,” Dillingham said.

The move to push the budget bill through with a simple majority requires the Legislature to adjourn so that the spending plan can go into effect in 90 days, before the fiscal  year ends on June 30. The Legislature adjourned Tuesday night after the majority and minority caucuses of each chamber agreed to come back for a special session on April 28 to work on the supplemental spending plan and unfinished legislation.

Mills said despite the lack of Republican support, passage of the state budget Tuesday is welcome news for Maine.

“While I am disappointed our Republican colleagues did not support it, passing and enacting this budget now provides much-needed stability and ensures continuity of services during this ongoing pandemic,” Mills said.

The president of the union that represents about 13,000 state workers also praised the budget’s passage on Tuesday.

“For the first time in a decade, thousands of public employees in our great state don’t have to go to sleep at night worrying about whether they’ll be locked out of their jobs on July 1,” MSEA-SEIU Local 1989 President Dean Staffieri said in a prepared statement. “The state budget approved today will continue services uninterrupted for all Maine people during this ongoing pandemic. The budget makes Maine people, not politics, the priority.”


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