Lawmakers easily passed a bill last week that aims to increase access to child care by expanding subsidies and boosting pay for child care workers to reduce staffing shortages.

The bill received near unanimous support in both chambers of the Legislature, with only one senator voting in opposition. And it was backed by a broad coalition of interest groups, from the Maine Women’s Lobby to the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Press releases were sent. Cheers rang out on social media.

“Really great news – both the House and Senate have passed my child care bill,” Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said on Twitter. “I look forward to working on getting this funded and signed because everyone I have worked with – Democrats, Republicans, businesses, providers and families – know how important it is.”

Despite that widespread support, the bill is not a shoo-in to become law. The costs, estimated at $37.5 million in the first year and increasing each year thereafter, has landed it on the special appropriations table, where it will compete against hundreds of other bills for precious little funding.

It’s a dance that happens in the closing days of each session, although some of the bills that are not funded this year could be carried over for consideration next year.


“We don’t know what’s going to happen when things go to the table,” said Linda Caprara, a budget lobbyist for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “We hold our breath until it’s done. Things change every day.”

As of Friday, 181 bills approved by both the House of Representatives and Senate were sitting on “the table,” as it’s known, and awaiting funding. The combined cost of those bills totals more than $1.5 billion over the next two years, including more than $1.2 billion next year alone. And more bills are being added every session day.

And very few stand a chance of receiving funding.

Gov. Janet Mills left lawmakers with about $12 million out of her $10.3 billion budget proposal that is unallocated and could be be used to pay for their bills. Some additional funding could be pulled out of the budget if the Legislature’s bills overlap with the governor’s priorities, and funding could be freed up if  lawmakers cut some of the governor’s initiatives.

As of Friday, only two of the bills on the table were funded in Mills’ budget: L.D. 2, to fund housing for homeless people, and L.D. 7, which updates the state’s tax code, according to the governor’s budget office.

Mills’ budget also includes funding for three other bills that have yet to reach the table: a new business incentive program, funding for emergency medical services, and supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or autism.


The special appropriations table is one of three destinations for bills seeking funding. Bills that seek money for special studies or highway projects have their own tables.

The fate of bills on the appropriations table will be decided by a small group of legislators: party leaders in each chamber and a handful of members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. And those negotiations will take place behind closed doors until an agreement has been reached, at which point the lawmakers will emerge and cast votes in public.

These funding decisions are among the last items of business for lawmakers. Bills that win funding are sent to the governor to be signed into law. If the other bills are not carried over to the next legislative session, they simply go away, as if they never were passed.

Room 228 the Maine State House in Augusta is home to the powerful Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which helps decide which bills win funding and which die on ‘the table.’ Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The process can be frustrating for both lobbyists and lawmakers alike.

“It’s where bills go to die,” said Kim Cook, a lobbyist who has advocated for health care, agricultural and telecommunications interests.

Karin Leuthy is a founder of Suit Up Maine, a volunteer grassroots advocacy group that sought to increase public participation in local government after Donald Trump was elected president. Volunteers would often feel crestfallen when bills they helped champion through committees and the Legislature would die quiet deaths on the table.


“It can be very sobering, and it can risk momentum for causes that you spend a lot of time building,” said Leuthy, who is now a lobbyist for the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy. “There are so many ways a bill can die. I think that is the hardest thing for people to learn when they’re figuring this out for the first time.”

Leuthy said the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s priorities this session include the subsidies for child care and direct care workers, paid family medical leave, child tax credits and building housing for the chronically homeless.

Sometimes, the victories are small. Cook said advocates often celebrate even when their program receives only a fraction of the needed funding, because it puts the program on the books, where it becomes part of the baseline budget for the following biennium, making it easier to secure additional funding.

And then there’s the other side of the coin. Bills with very minor costs can also die on the table without a full explanation of why.


That is what happened last year to a potentially historic bill to expand the self-government rights of Maine’s indigenous tribes. The bill had broad support in the Legislature, but it died on the table for lack funding to implement it – less than $45,000 – after Mills sent a letter to lawmakers outlining her opposition. The move avoided a potential veto by Mills, which some speculated could have hurt her in her reelection campaign.


“Politics sometimes plays a role in what happens here,” Cook said. “There’s some hard, difficult and painful conversations that happen behind closed doors that are not pretty.”

Caprara, who has been a lobbyist for 30 years, said that she has noticed an increase in off-mic negotiations among lawmakers, whereas previously more of those discussions would be conducted in public. That can make it difficult to assess a bill’s chances of getting funded.

The appropriations process can sometimes offer relief when a program opposed by the chamber of commerce lands on the table because it contains a fiscal note, Caprara said. But she’s also frustrated that the process only accounts for costs and ignores the potential for bills to bring in additional revenue through programs that offer tax incentives to businesses.

“If their priorities are yours, then you’re in luck. If not, then not so much,” Caprara said. “A lot of good bills die on the table. And a lot of bad bills die on the table.”

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who serves on the budget committee, said he was frustrated last year when the table was used to kill the bill that would have restored sovereignty to Maine tribes. He was among the broad coalition of lawmakers backing the historic bill.

“I was outraged when L.D. 1626 last year died on the table for a ($44,650) fiscal note,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t a fiscal issue.”


While the governor’s budget proposal is subject to committee hearings and input, Bennett described the special appropriations process as “extra-legislative” and subject to gaming by delaying implementation of a program, or initially funding it at a lower cost in the first year, knowing the costs are going to grow later on.

“You have these caucuses making these spending decisions, some of which have immense tails on them,” Bennett said. “And they haven’t really gone through the proper process.”

According to an analysis by the Press Herald, four bills on the table would have no cost next year but would cost over $1 million the following year. L.D. 1064, which would increase the minimum teacher salary, is among the four. The tails on that bill would cost $3.5 million in two years and nearly $6 million and $8.9 million in each of the following years.


Other bills seem to be unfeasible out of the gate. L.D. 70 would increase the amount of retirement pay used to calculate cost-of-living increases for retired teachers, state employees, judges and legislators from $24,000 to $40,000. The cost? A whopping $775 million next year.

Another bill, L.D. 1096, would boost the cost-of-living increase for state pensioners from 3% to 5% for just one year, an effort to provide a cushion against inflation. That bill would cost $182 million next year.


As of Friday, bills sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, were seeking the most funding. In addition to the bill to shore up the child care system, Jackson sponsored seven other bills that are on the table and seeking more than $100 million combined over the next two years.

Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, appeared to have the largest number of individual bills on the table. His 13 proposals are seeking more than $30 million in funding for programs such as work force development ($20 million), adult education ($3.5 million) and addressing the student achievement gap ($4 million.)

And a bill sponsored by Rep. Lydia Crafts, D-Newcastle, to improve behavioral health supports for public school students is seeking $81.4 million in annual funding.

The requests far outstrip the available funding.

In the last 10 years, leaders have divvied up whatever money remains at the end of the budget process among the four caucuses made up by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Last year, each caucus got $3 million to fund their bills and in some cases split the cost of the bills that had bipartisan support.

But it’s unclear how those decisions will be made this year.

“We haven’t talked about that in chairs and leads yet,” said Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, who chairs the budget committee.

“I don’t know what will be left when we’re done with our budget,” Rotundo added. “It’s a question of prioritizing and when you have several hundred bills on the table it’s hard. Difficult decisions need to be made.”

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