AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a $310 million plan to close a shortfall in the state budget Monday, setting the stage for passage in the House and Senate next week.

After hundreds of hours of work, including a 13-hour day Sunday and more negotiations Monday, the committee gave final approval to a bill that would balance the state’s two-year, $5.7 billion budget.

In a show of bipartisan spirit, the committee’s Senate chairman, Bill Diamond, D-Windham, handed the gavel to Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, to let him preside over the final committee vote.

“Closing a $310 million gap less than a year after cutting more than $500 million in spending could not have happened without the hours of public testimony, the efforts of the policy committees and the bipartisan work of the Appropriations Committee,” Diamond said in a prepared statement.

Lagging revenues and the national recession have left less money for the state to spend at a time when many Mainers are reaching out for help from the state. In recent weeks, a boost in federal funding and a small uptick in revenues reduced the gap from $438 million to $310 million for the budget.

The budget approved Monday, to run through June 30, 2011, would cut $48 million from K-12 education, $23 million from health and human services and $16 million from cities and towns.

It also would restore longevity pay for state workers and eliminate three unpaid days off for state workers, originally proposed in December.

Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said the budget would eliminate many of the worst cuts proposed by Gov. John Baldacci without increasing revenue.

“If anything, I’m surprised we came all this way together with very few, if any, serious disagreements,” he said.

One of the disagreements came Monday, when Republicans proposed cuts to the state’s Clean Election fund — cuts that were rejected by Democrats on the committee.

Debt payments, one of the most contentious parts of the budget, were removed in the wee hours Monday morning. House Chairwoman Emily Cain, D-Orono, said that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that there will — or won’t — be a bond package coming forward.

“That motion is not a signal in any direction with our discussions related to bonds,” she said.

On Sunday, the committee voted on a series of amendments, including a $225,000 cut from the State Planning Office, which Republicans said will require the office to organize better.

“This is an effort to take a look at functions and operations of State Planning and modernize the role of the organization established many years ago,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport.

The committee restored $500,000 for adult education, which had faced a $580,000 cut.

On Monday, the committee approved amendments put forward by Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, and restored money to the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, substance-abuse treatment facilities and the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Diamond sponsored an amendment to fund the hiring of one detective for the state computer crimes unit, which investigates child pornography cases. He said there is a backlog of 300 felony cases.

The committee got some good news from the fiscal office, which estimates there is $6.5 million in unallocated funds.

That money will be set aside. If it is not used by April 30, it will automatically go into the state’s rainy day fund.

The bill moves now moves to the House, where votes are expected next week.

The unanimous committee support means the two-thirds support necessary for passage is likely.

“In December, when the governor first presented the supplemental budget, almost everyone said, ‘I can’t vote for that,’” Cain said.

But after working with other legislative committees and with help from additional funds, they were able to change the package significantly.

“That gave us the tools to get rid of the worst of the worst, and address the rest on their merits,” she said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]