Maine Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, listens to proceedings on Aug. 26, 2019, at the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — After a failed last-ditch round of negotiations and protesting floor speeches from Republicans, Democrats flexed their majorities to begin moving a $9.9 billion state budget through the Legislature on Thursday evening.

It will be the second two-year budget that Democrats have passed since 2021 by a simple majority under Gov. Janet Mills, setting aside a consensus process that governed state spending for 15 years and gave the minority party considerable control over the product.

Talks between the parties were running until last week, when Democrats refused to meet a Republican demand to promise a $200 million income tax cut. The majority party pared down Mills’ original $10.3 billion proposal to set aside new initiatives and leave them for lawmakers to discuss later this year.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, repeatedly admonished Republicans for impugning Democrats during a lengthy and emotional floor debate. The House first approved the budget in a 79-61 vote, prompting Republicans to leave the chamber for a news conference. It initially cleared the Senate 22-11. Lawmakers sent it to Mills late Thursday night.

Many members were moved by a speech from Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a respected veteran budget negotiator who implored leaders to bring together a group of lawmakers who could work together and solve the impasse. One Democratic member approached a reporter to ask if he had heard it and wondered why leaders could not come to a deal.

“I guess I’m making a plea, probably not at the 11th hour, probably closer to midnight, to see if any of you are willing to join us in an opportunity to say, ‘How do we get there?’” Millett said.

Lawmakers typically finalize budgets before the end of the state fiscal year in June. But that approach requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers and can come with peril. House Republicans forced a brief state shutdown in 2017 after allying with then-Gov. Paul LePage against bipartisan budget offers.

To pass a budget by a simple majority, Democrats must pass it by the end of March and technically adjourn the Legislature so it can take effect by the end of June. Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, argued his party has a responsibility to take a shutdown off the table. After they were angered by the 2021 budget, Republicans joined Democrats to pass a revised version.

“Taking a two-step approach to the biennial budget ensures that the state pays its bills and fulfills its obligations to the people of Maine,” Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said in a floor speech.

Votes on the budget were scheduled to start Thursday morning. The chambers briefly convened, but Talbot Ross suggested a long pause in talks to discuss spending with Republicans, House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said. 

His caucus restated their major demand dating back to last week: that Democrats agree to support setting aside $200 million for income tax relief focused on low- and middle-income Mainers. Faulkingham said Thursday’s talks ended after top House Democrats met with Rotundo and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, then came back to him to say there wasn’t going to be a deal.

Jackson spokesperson Christine Kirby said Democrats met to “make sure all options are explored” and the caucus supports Rotundo’s view that tax cuts can be considered later this spring.

The House reconvened after 3 p.m., and Republicans lined up on the floor to savage the budget. Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn called it the “tyranny of the majority,” also criticizing roughly $750,000 in funds included in the budget for MaineCare abortion coverage as part of a 2019 law passed by Mills and Democrats.

Republicans forced votes on that provision as well as on other amendments that included their key priorities, but they were summarily tossed out by Democrats. Another change would have changed the slogan on license plates from “Vacationland” to “Taxationland,” something Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn said he put forward “mostly to make a point.”

The floor debate was mostly serious. Freshman Rep. J. Mark Worth, D-Ellsworth, said after his wife died this winter, Faulkingham sent him a condolence card. When he thanked the leader for it in person, Faulkingham replied by saying the Legislature is like a family. That led Worth to say the spending dialogue should not stop here.

“We will continue to listen to one another, to talk with one another,” he said. “The listening, I think, is the more important of those two.”

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...