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We’re not fans of single-party budgets. We think they send the wrong message about bipartisanship in Augusta (and Washington, for that matter). We also strongly dislike government shutdowns, which are dangerous, disruptive and usually unnecessary.
To avoid the possibility of a shutdown, state lawmakers need a budget in place on July 1 to fund government services and programs when the next fiscal year begins. A budget passed with support from two-thirds of lawmakers can go into effect immediately. So, if the Democrats who control the Legislature are confident they have enough Republican support, they can wait until the waning days of the legislative session to pass a budget. Without two-thirds support, a new spending plan must be approved at least 90 days before July 1 so that it will be in effect by then.
That’s the situation lawmakers find themselves in now as votes on a state budget for the next two years are scheduled to begin in the Maine House and Senate on Thursday. Democrats, who control both the Maine House and Senate, are expected to pass a spending plan even if Republicans vote against it.
While Democrats say this is a prudent step to ensure ongoing funding of existing programs and services, they cannot ignore Republicans’ calls for tax relief when they return to work next month.
In a nutshell, Gov. Janet Mills presented a budget in January that called for $10.3 billion in state spending, about $2 billion more than the previous two-year budget thanks to significant actual and projected increases in state revenue. This spending level would exceed a spending cap that was enacted nearly 20 years ago.
Republicans said the budget was much too large and initially called for reductions of about $1 billion. They did not specify where the spending reductions should come from. The spending in the current budget that runs through June was approved by two-thirds of state lawmakers, including many Republicans.
More recently, Republicans suggested cuts in state taxes with the reductions targeted at the state’s low- and moderate-income residents. Late last week, Republicans presented an amendment that said subsequent state budget changes must include $200 million in structural tax relief and a working group on public assistance. The debate over tax relief is well worth having — when lawmakers can fully debate the pros and cons without the threat of a state shutdown clock looming over their deliberations.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which took dozens of unanimous votes on parts of the budget, broke down along party lines late last week when the committee’s Democratic leaders did not include this language about tax cuts and welfare reform in the biennial budget.
Along party lines, the budget committee then supported a $9.8 billion biennial spending plan to continue state programs and services at their current levels, which conveniently comes in under the spending cap. It then pushed off deliberations on tax cuts, and spending increases that Mills had proposed, until later this legislative session.
This ensures that current services are funded, which gives towns, schools, providers and others that rely on state spending some certainty as they prepare their own spending plans. It also moves discussions of tax cuts and spending increases to a time when the stakes are lower should there be a failure to reach agreement.
Democrats have the votes to enact this budget so it can go into effect in time. However, even though they rejected Republicans’ push for a commitment to tax relief, they must fulfill their pledges to more fully consider tax changes later this year.