Politics

June 14, 2013

Maine lawmakers pass two-year budget; fate uncertain

The vote margins are just enough to have the plan go into effect on July 1, but a veto threat remains.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature narrowly passed a $6.3 billion, two-year state budget Thursday night despite a veto threat by Gov. Paul LePage.

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Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, center speaks with Roger Sen. Katz, R-Augusta, right, and other senators during a session Thursday, June 13, 2013, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. The Maine Legislature on Thursday narrowly passed a $6.3 billion two-year state budget despite a veto threat by Gov. Paul LePage. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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State Reps. Eleanor Espling, R-New Gloucester, left, and Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, look at the tote board during a roll call vote on the state budget during a session Thursday, June 13, 2013, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Lawmakers are taking up a budget proposal that earned unanimous committee approval and a veto threat from Gov. Paul LePage. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The final vote in the House was 102-43, just over the two-thirds majority needed to make the budget effective by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

The Senate’s final vote, 25-10, also barely exceeded a two-thirds majority.

LePage has said he will veto the budget because it contains tax increases, even if it means shutting down state government on July 1.

Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, praised House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, for keeping most of his caucus together to support the budget, which the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee endorsed unanimously last week.

“That showed his leadership abilities,” Hobbins said.

Fredette said it is a “tough” budget, particularly for Republicans, because it calls for a temporary sales tax increase, from 5 percent to 5.5 percent, and an increase in the meals-and-lodging tax, from 7 percent to 8 percent. Both increases would expire at the end of the two-year budget cycle.

“It’s only for fear of a government shutdown that Republicans voted for this,” he said in an interview after the vote.

To put the budget in context, Republican Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake referred to his family’s apple orchard in Turner, which produces 250,000 bushels a year.

To produce 6.3 billion apples would require him to raise the same number of apples for 250 years, said Timberlake, who opposed the budget. “It’s a lot of money,” he said.

House Republicans will come under “immense pressure” in the coming days to sustain the expected veto by LePage, said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, but rejection of the budget compromise would mean massive property tax increases.

“We believe they will make the right choice,” he said.

To take effect on July 1, the budget must be passed as an emergency measure, which requires approval from two-thirds of the 151-member House and two-thirds of the 35-member Senate. That means 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate.

A veto override, on the other hand, requires approval from two-thirds of the members present in each chamber.

Critics of LePage’s original budget, which he proposed in January, say it contained a significant tax increase because of a two-year suspension of municipal aid and changes to programs designed to provide property-tax relief.

In the budget approved Thursday, the increase in the sales and meals taxes would be used in part to restore $125 million in revenue sharing to cities and towns that LePage had cut. The budget also would restore $9.1 million to Maine’s homestead property-tax exemption program, which LePage had proposed cutting.

While the Appropriations Committee restored most of the state money to cities and towns, its budget still represents a “huge tax increase” because it would cause cities and towns to raise property taxes, said Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland.

“It’s bad math and terrible public policy. This budget is balanced out of the pockets of hardworking people,” said Stuckey, who voted for the budget nevertheless.

Stuckey had proposed an amendment that would have raised taxes on the wealthy to generate money for property-tax relief. The amendment failed, as did several other proposed amendments.

One Republican senator who supported the budget, Roger Katz, a former mayor of Augusta, said he’s worried more about the impact on cities and towns than about the sales tax increase.

Under LePage’s proposed budget, Augusta would cut services, he said, and property taxes would go up as well. “From my perspective, that is the last tax we should be raising,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Flood of Winthrop, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said the party caucuses are particularly divided this year, which made it more difficult for the committee to reach agreements on the 716-page document.

“I worked on eight of these budgets,” he said during the floor debate in the Senate. “This was the hardest one.”

In the House, seven Democrats and two independents voted against the budget plan.

In the Senate, the only “no” votes came from Republicans.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 274-0787 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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