Gov. Janet Mills addresses members of the Legislature electronically at the Augusta Civic Center on Dec. 2, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative Democrats rushed a $8.3 billion budget through a committee on Thursday over Republican opposition, setting up votes next week on what will likely be the first two-year spending package approved by a simple majority since 2005.

The budget first teased by Democatic leaders on Monday is pared down only slightly from Gov. Janet Mills’ initial proposal in January. It includes additional spending on education funding, teacher retirements and a homestead exemption. Democrats took out a new streaming services tax that would have generated nearly $10 million over two years.

Two-year spending plans typically pass in Augusta with two-thirds votes in both chambers, necessitating grand bargains between the parties typically not resolved until shortly before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. But Democrats are going it alone while arguing that protracted negotiations would cause anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The power play has infuriated Republicans, who voted against the budget in a 40-minute appropriations committee session on Thursday. It advanced through the committee with Democratic support. The minority party said the budget was sprung on them.

“We have time to push the reset button and show our constituents over the next few months that we can work together and restore civility, craft a budget and put them first,” said Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham.

Democrats, including Mills, have argued that the budget will maintain core services and allow legislators to return later in the year to allocate another $1 billion coming to the state in the federal stimulus package recently passed by Congress. That is expected to replace some of the money in this budget and be spent on additional items.

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the co-chair of the budget panel, said at the conclusion of the meeting that Democrats are still hoping they can win a two-thirds majority vote. It is unlikely, but it would prevent them from going through procedural hurdles that would force them to officially adjourn the 2021 session after passing the budget and then return in a special session.

If Democrats can only muster a majority vote, Mills must sign the budget by April 1 for it to go into effect by the next fiscal year. Only 20 Maine budget bills have passed with this non-emergency status since 1950, but almost all were short-term adjustments that came under no threat of a government shutdown. The last one of those happened under Republican control of Augusta under former Gov. Paul LePage in 2012.