Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, top right, watches debate on the budget from the House gallery on Thursday at The Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Democrats in the Legislature voted Thursday to adopt a baseline two-year state budget despite forceful objections from Republicans, who were powerless to block it.

House members voted along party lines, 79-61, to send the nearly $10 billion budget package to the Senate, where Democrats again used their majority to overcome Republican objections in 22-11 vote.

The House and Senate cast additional votes late Thursday night to enact the budget and Gov. Janet Mills was expected to sign it Friday.

The House took up the proposal late in the afternoon following a delay of several hours to allow for closed-door negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders. Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, called for an initial vote to take up the bill and it passed along party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Democrats hope to use their majorities in the House and Senate to approve enough spending to continue existing services when the next fiscal year starts in July. If successful, lawmakers would then take up a second budget bill in the coming weeks to decide what to do with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue, a debate that will focus on competing proposals for new spending and tax reductions.

“This is a responsible budget,” said Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport. “In the end, the state budget will impact every single person here in Maine. If we pass it today, we eliminate the specter of a government shutdown. We provide predictability to our communities, our businesses, our schools and our municipalities.”


But Republicans accused Democrats of stoking fears about a possible government shutdown to pass a party-line budget, when both parties were working well together on the budget writing committee to produce a bipartisan budget.

Rep. Mark Blier, R-Buxton, said Republicans were consistently seeking a tax cut, equivalent to less than 2% of projected state revenues. But Democrats “pulled the rug out” at the last minute.

“What about all of our constituents?” Belier asked. “Are they not a part of Maine? They don’t even get a voice.”

Standing in front of a third floor wall covered with portraits, House Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, talks to a gaggle of reporters on Thursday at The Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Democrats divided the budget into two parts after negotiations with Republicans broke down last week. A party-line continuing services budget would avoid any prospect of a government shutdown, which last occurred in 2017, but the vote would have to take place this week.

By voting before April 1 and relying only on the support of Democrats, the continuing services budget would take effect before the next fiscal year starts July 1. After this week, a budget would need to win bipartisan support of two-thirds of the Legislature to take effect before July.

Democrats hold 81 of the 151 seats in the House and 23 of the 36 seats in the Senate.


In sometimes emotional testimony, Republicans argued that the proposal includes new spending and goes beyond continuing services. And they criticized Democrats for the move, saying they had been cut out of the process after weeks of bipartisan talks.

Minority members argued on the House floor Thursday to amend the bill to include a commitment that part two of the budget will include at least $200 million in income tax relief that “primarily benefits low-income to middle-income individuals and families.”

Republicans also had called for the creation of a working group to examine the state’s welfare programs to see if benefits are preventing people from entering the workforce, but House Republicans did not offer that amendment Thursday night.


Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said structural tax reform would send a message that lawmakers value work by allowing Mainers to keep more of their hard-earned paychecks on a regular basis, rather than hope lawmakers send rebate checks, as they have in the past.

“The value of work shouldn’t be simply rewarded by an occasional check that arrives in the mail and then it’s gone,” Millett said.


Other Republican amendments called for eliminating MaineCare coverage for abortion services and changing the motto on the state license plate from “Vacationland” to Taxationland.” Neither was approved in either chamber.

House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham said a majority budget could compromise the spirit of unity that has existed since House Republicans joined Democrats in electing Talbot Ross as House speaker.

“There was a sign of unity I have felt every day since then,” Faulkingham said. “There’s been optimism and joy in this building I haven’t felt in five years. Madam Speaker, I would hate to see that go out the door. This is a modest proposal of tax relief for low- and middle-income people. We can work together. We can keep this this on the rails.”

Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, opens the afternoon session on Thursday at The Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Several Democrats, however, noted the need for additional investments to provide relief for low-income Mainers.

Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, pointed to the need to provide better services for homeless youth.

“Those are vital services our state can provide that would be hindered and would hurt the lowest income Mainers to pass tax relief on this level without raising revenue elsewhere,” Lookner said.


Rep. Charles Skold, D-Portland, notes that need for investments in housing costs, medical costs, workers starting a family or when they get sick, and helping teachers and state retirees.

“There is a tremendous need for relief in this state,” Skold said. “My understanding is we will have another opportunity to continue discussing the relief that is needed to meet the tremendous challenges and needs all around this state.”

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, criticized the baseline budget for including new positions, when scores of existing positions are not filled, saying it would only increase the baseline of future budgets. She listed what she considers to be a failure of record investments in education, saying test scores are lagging; health care, saying there’s a shortage of workers and primary care providers; free community college, yet students needing remedial help.

“This is tyranny of the majority,” Libby said. “We must stop growing the state budget while Maine families’ budgets are shrinking. I can’t be the only person hearing from constituents struggling to pay for groceries, electricity and heat.”


After the House vote, Republicans from both chambers held a news conference to blast Democrats.


“Rather than giving tax relief to citizens or fighting the opioid addiction plaguing Maine’s neighborhoods, statehouse Democrats are feeding their own addiction to your money,” Faulkingham said. “That addiction is strong Democrats are going to spend every penny of revenue projections.”

Prior to the vote, Assistant House Minority Leader Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, said Republicans were pushing hard to cut taxes now because Democrats have signaled an intent to spend all of the projected state revenue. She said the Republican tax plan could be paid without cutting services, leaving about $400 million in unspent revenue in the second part of the budget.

“We’re in March Madness, right? They’ve telegraphed their pass to each other so we know they will eventually be spending the entire $10.5 billion in revenue,” Arata said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, speaks during debate on the budget. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Arata said conversations with Talbot Ross continued throughout Thursday morning and credited her for earnestly pursuing a compromise.

Democrats have said the continuing services budget also doesn’t include any of their own spending priorities and that the time to debate tax reductions versus expanded services will come when the Legislature addresses part two of the budget.

A spokesperson said Talbot Ross negotiated through the morning and afternoon in hopes of reaching a compromise.


“The speaker will always engage in constructive dialogue with the hopes of reaching bipartisan agreement,” spokesperson Mary Erin Casale said. “Today’s conversations were a prime example of her willingness to engage, to listen and to make sure all options are explored before the votes are cast.”

The $9.8 billion baseline budget recommended by Democrats on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is about $500,000 million smaller than the comprehensive two-year budget proposed by Mills. And it remains below a spending cap in state law that Republicans have been trying to leverage to win tax cuts amid historically high revenues and surpluses.

The continuing services budget includes money to maintain the state’s commitment to funding 55% of pubic school costs and continues a universal free school meal program and subsidies for childcare providers. It also continues fully funding revenue sharing with municipalities.

Democrats said the budget also contains additional funding for the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services to maintain increased rates for lawyers representing people who can’t afford an attorney. The commission recently increased those hourly rates to $150 from $80.

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