A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills threw a wrench into budget negotiations by criticizing Republicans just as the Democratic-led Legislature faces a deadline for advancing a two-year spending plan on its own.
After rolling out a $10.3 billion budget proposal in January, the Democratic governor said it should win bipartisan support in Augusta. Legislative Republicans thought they could keep a consensus plan on track, but they have since said they want to hold the budget at a $9.9 billion spending cap in state law, which the governor is trying to change.
The time crunch: Lawmakers have until the end of June to pass a two-year budget if they have a deal that can win two-thirds majorities. But if the Democrats, who run things in Augusta, want to pass a budget alone, as they did in 2021, it needs to happen by the end of this month so it takes effect by the end of this fiscal year.
This looks like a consideration. Last week, I got a tip that the idea of a majority budget came up in a recent meeting between Mills and the top Democrats in the Legislature. Spokespeople for House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland and Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash did not respond to questions on the topic.
Mills escalates: The governor’s office did not address the meeting in a Friday response. Instead, it put pressure on Republicans for wanting to hold the budget at roughly $9.9 billion under a spending cap in state law that the governor is trying to change, arguing that such a line would erode bipartisan priorities from the last budget.
“If Republicans want to renege on the commitments they previously supported, then the Governor believes they have an obligation to the people of Maine to clearly state what programs and services they want to cut from the proposed budget,” Scott Ogden, a Mills spokesperson, said.
One of the Republicans on the budget panel, Sen. Rick Bennett of Oxford, was bemused by the statement, saying members are working well together. He noted increased state government positions and other items in the budget as areas that Republicans are reviewing, but he said it was premature to argue that they were looking to cut current spending items.
“I find it really unhelpful and perhaps hostile to the governor’s expressed desire for a cooperative, bipartisan budget for her to characterize positions Republicans haven’t taken as of yet as we do our job to properly scrutinize the increases that she’s proposed,” he said.
What’s next: When Democrats pursued a majority budget in 2021, the announcement came with about a week to go before the deadline. This year, policy committees are moving quickly through their recommendations on the budget, with 14 panels already filing so-called report-backs to the appropriations committee.
Since the two-thirds budget is typically the minority party’s best chance at leverage, some Republicans have been worrying of late that Democrats may cut them out. But one Democrat said it has not come up in any party meetings so far, and he hears the idea brought up most by Republicans.
“We can’t do a majority budget without the governor’s leadership on it and agreement from Democratic leadership in the House and Senate,” Rep. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, the co-chair of the tax committee, said. “If those conversations are going on there, and it’s going to be sprung on us sometime in the next week or so, that’s a possibility, but I have no indication that’s going on.”