Maine Gov. Janet Mills arrives to swear in the new Maine Legislature, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Gov. Janet Mills wants a bipartisan state budget, but she has been careful not to commit to one with Maine’s political parties trying to preserve their leverage in high-stakes negotiations.

When the Democratic governor rolled out her $10.3 billion spending plan this month, she said it was a document that should win consensus in the State House, where two-year budgets typically are passed by two-thirds majorities before a June 30 deadline to avert state shutdowns.

Democrats alone could pass a budget by the end of March, as they did in 2021. Legislative Republicans said they asked Mills to commit to a two-thirds process during fraught December negotiations over a heating aid package. While the governor declined, she has said one is her goal and members of the minority party think they can keep a deal on track.

“I take her at her word,” said House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor. 

The exchange between Mills’ office shows how the sides have positioned themselves ahead of budget talks that will begin this week with hearings on a short-term part of the plan this week. Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee are set to take testimony on the larger piece of the governor’s budget plan next month.

Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, confirmed the exchange late last year between legislative Republicans and the governor’s office. Mills’ office did not respond to a Monday request for comment. Several Democrats on the budget panel also did not respond.

State budgets are the most complicated matters negotiated in Augusta. They usually result in grand bargains carved out over months. Democratic majorities mean Mills and her party are likely to get most of what they want, while Republicans should win concessions in exchange for delivering the votes needed to pass it by supermajorities in both chambers.

Mills’ package would hike the state budget over $10 billion for the first time, keeping income taxes flat while continuing to fund K-12 education and municipal aid at statutory levels. It dedicates tens of millions more to free school meals, a free community college program, health care programs and rental housing.

While Senate Republicans held up the heating aid that contained $450 relief checks for most Mainers for about a month, they said they wanted to better fund nursing homes and services for people with developmental disabilities. After Mills’ budget sent more to some of those programs, Republicans praised those moves while criticizing the overall amount absent a tax cut.

“I think maybe there’s some ways to address some of that stuff without increasing the baseline that much,” Faulkingham said. “That will probably be my biggest concern.”

Two years ago, Democrats cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major reason for advancing their own budget before the end of March, allowing it to take effect that June. It was the first time a two-year budget had been passed by a simple majority since 2005, though lawmakers updated the document later in 2021 by consensus.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a top member of the budget committee, said that is a “burden that both parties have to face.” 

“And I’m optimistic we can get there,” he said.