Maine Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, listens to proceedings on Aug. 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine – A $1.2 billion spending plan easily cleared the Maine Legislature on Tuesday and went to Gov. Janet Mills for her signature.

The spending plan driven by a wave of pandemic relief was the biggest-ticket item facing lawmakers in 2022. These proposals are usually worked out at the very end of every session, but the discussion has been relatively uneventful this year after the Democratic governor carved out the majority of surpluses for relief payments to meet Republican demands. 

The initial 119-16 vote in the House signaled little drama as the Legislature looks to adjourn by Wednesday, with late amendment proposals shot down with scant debate. It then passed through the Maine Senate with little resistance, with only Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford and Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, opposing it. The governor is likely to sign it quickly so the emergency measure can go into effect immediately.

Discussion of the plan has revolved around its biggest item — $850 relief payments for 857,000 Mainers. Mills cribbed it from Republicans, but former Gov. Paul LePage who, is running against Mills in 2022, derided the payments as a gimmick. Progressives have also criticized prioritizing checks over housing or mental health needs.

But neither argument found traction during the budget debate with lawmakers having little appetite to change a budget with clear bipartisan support. Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, a co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, said Maine people have contributed to the economy “through uncertain times.”

“There is something here for all of us,” said Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, the leading Republican on the appropriations committee.

The budget’s smooth road to passage is a notable departure from 2021, when majority Democrats passed their initial two-year budget over the objections of Republicans.

Once approved and signed into law by the governor, the budget would set aside $60 million for a new PFAS remediation fund to address economic and health harm from the so-called “forever chemicals” being found in land and water. It would put $20 million toward free community college for recent and upcoming high school graduates.

It would also provide an income tax deduction for college-educated Mainers working in the state. Other notable items include a higher income tax exemption for retiree pensions, a larger property tax credit for low-income people and $12 million in child care subsidies.

Late objections to the package came from the left and right. Rep. Sophie Warren, D-Scarborough, to reduce relief checks by $100 million and send that total to climate initiatives while Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, tried to reshape the package to suspend the gas tax, wipe out many new spending proposals and send state budget money to roads and bridges.

Her floor speech focused on underfunded issues in the state, including an indigent legal services system facing a lawsuit alleging violations of constitutional rights, a concern Keim also cited during the Senate vote. The Judiciary Committee made several recommendations on how to improve those services, but none are included in the budget.

“This supplemental budget does fulfill a number of wish lists but fails to provide some very real and desperate needs in our state,” Libby said.