AUGUSTA, Maine — A day before Gov. Janet Mills was set to release her two-year-budget proposal, legislative Republicans signaled a fight over spending that could set the course of State House debate over the next few months.
The Democratic governor will release her two-year spending plan on Wednesday, kicking off some of the most consequential debate so far in the newly elected Legislature, where relations between the parties were tested by a December fight over heating relief money.
When Mills and her party took full control of Augusta after the 2018 election, she rankled Republicans by proposing the state’s first $8 billion budget, but they were only able to trim a little from it during negotiations. Since then, the parties have often fought over spending, including in 2021, when Democrats bypassed the normal consensus process to pass a majority budget.
The environment could be fraught again in 2023. On Tuesday, one conservative House member said she likely would not support a consensus deal. At a time of high inflation, one negotiator said he wants to hold spending below the $8.5 billion budget enacted two years ago.
All of that came as Mills continued a cautious approach around the budget, telling Maine Public on Tuesday that her budget proposes no major new initiatives and would continue major ones, including funding 55 percent of basic K-12 education costs and providing free meals in schools.
“I don’t expect a great deal of drama surrounding it,” she said. “Well, you never know.”
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Mills was elected in 2018 behind a promise to not raise income taxes, a pledge that her campaign renewed last year. The major difference in state finances between the LePage and Mills eras was a massive infusion of federal COVID-19 aid that bailed out state budgets. It has allowed Mills to sharply raise spending while bringing the state’s rainy day fund to a record high.
This next budget plan comes at a time of recession fears. Years of surpluses have swung into projected shortfalls in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out proposed spending cuts on Tuesday. Maine is expected to bring in $10.5 billion over the next two years, something Mills’ office underscored as it announced the governor’s Wednesday news conference.
Republicans were incensed when Mills and Democrats moved their own budget in 2021. The usual process requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers to pass an emergency bill, something that LePage and House Republicans used to force a brief state shutdown in 2017.
In another example of that minority power, Senate Republicans voted down a $473 million heating aid bill in December, only giving Mills the votes to pass it after forcing a public hearing. That battle led Republicans to outline budget priorities of their own, including nursing homes funding and reducing waitlists for services for people with intellectual disabilities.
Most House Republicans voted for it, but a leader of the defectors was conservative Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn. On Tuesday, she said the current state relations between the parties makes her think there will be a two-thirds budget but that she was unlikely to support it. Lack of agreement would force a state shutdown unless Democrats passed a budget by April 1.
Rep. Jack Ducharme, R-Madison, a member of the budget panel, said his goal entering budget season was “to spend less money than we did last time.” While he said it would be best to get a two-thirds budget, he also cautioned that his colleagues may not be in such a mood.
“If anybody has been through this process, you need to understand that it’s not within our control unless we acquiesce to everything, and I don’t know that our caucus will necessarily do that,” he said.