Frozen snowshoe tracks cross the landscape at Capitol Park at at the State House during the final week of winter, Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats who control the Maine Legislature acted Thursday to move a pared-down version of the two-year state budget, assuaging Republicans for now by setting out a process that could leave them leverage when spending talks continue this spring.

That result came after days of sensitive closed-door negotiations between the parties and Gov. Janet Mills, who was seen as favoring a bipartisan spending plan more than some other Democrats. The party angered Republicans in 2021 by passing an initial budget over their objections, bypassing the consensus process that ruled the State House for 15 years.

The Legislature’s appropriations committee began voting Thursday on a pared-down version of Mills’ $10.3 billion proposal that mostly addresses current programs. A source pegged the total at just over $9.8 billion. It will mostly set aside new programs and services and give lawmakers more time to come to an agreement on more controversial items.

“We pledge to continue this work with our colleagues and will do so with our ongoing commitment to improving the lives of all Mainers,” Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, the co-chair of the budget panel, said in a statement.

Final approval next week would allow the budget to take effect after simple-majority votes in both chambers by the end of the state’s fiscal year in late June. It is still unclear whether Republicans will join those votes, since they have been pushing to hold spending at a cap of roughly $9.9 billion and secure an income tax cut for low-income Mainers.

Unlike in 2021, Republicans did not object to the early budget move on Thursday but stressed that they have work to do before agreeing to the ultimate product.

“I’m grateful for the collaboration and the spirit that we’re all working toward here, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said as votes began.

This mirrors the way budgets were done from the 1980s through the early 2000s. After that, lawmakers pursued deals closed near the end of June that were able to get through both chambers by the two-thirds majorities needed to take effect immediately.

The consensus process survived the raucous tenure of former Gov. Paul LePage, although it led to a brief 2017 state shutdown when a House Republican minority aligned with LePage held out in negotiations. Democrats passed a budget alone in 2021 while citing a need to provide continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic. A bipartisan revision passed later that year.

This approach provides some advantages for both parties. For Democrats, it leaves them with a backstop if they cannot reach a deal with Republicans on outstanding issues.

After the initial budget passes, Republicans will still need to sign off on spending items that Democrats want to pass immediately. If they do not, Democrats could pass the funding on their own later this spring, but it would take at least three months for that money to become available.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...