AUGUSTA, Maine — The combination of Gov. Janet Mills trying to stiff-arm Republican demands for income tax cuts while arguing with the top House Democrat over tribal rights is dimming the prospects of Maine lawmakers easily reaching a budget deal next month.
The bipartisan pushback on the governor’s proposed two-year budget addition to fund initiatives including affordable housing, infrastructure and emergency medical services means the plan will almost certainly not receive the two-thirds support needed to take effect immediately in July.
The budget bickering most recently arose Monday, when the Democratic governor’s finance commissioner presented her nearly $900 million budget addition to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.
Several Republicans on the budget committee used the presentation as an opportunity to reair their grievances over what happened in March, when Democrats used their majorities to push through a two-year, $9.8 billion budget over the objections of GOP members. Republicans complained they were cut out of the normally bipartisan process after requesting $200 million in tax cuts focused on the lowest bracket.
DEMOCRATIC PARTY STRUGGLE
One of the Legislature’s most experienced and respected budget negotiators, Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said it is unlikely the two parties will come together to approve the final “change package” to the budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
“It feels to me like the burden upon [lawmakers] is almost overwhelming, to put it mildly, in terms of getting to a resolution in a bipartisan way that will allow the strings to be pulled together,” Millett said, “…because there are so many unaddressed and unknown questions still before us, and the calendar is getting shorter and shorter.”
Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa said the governor’s budget “funds the commitments that have been made in a bipartisan fashion over the past several years.”
Still, the comments from Mills’ finance commissioner did not make Republicans feel any better.
“We’re way behind the eight ball, and that’s really unfortunate,” Rep. Mark Blier, R-Buxton, said. “And so, you know, I think that we want a bipartisan approach to this…[and] not just leave us out of the loop like we did on the biennial budget, so I think that that’s important.”
Mills unveiled last week a “change package” to the two-year budget that proposes $432 million in new spending and $455 million in transfers from various accounts, growing the final spending plan to a little over $10.3 billion.
The largest proposed item in the change package is $400 million for transportation in an effort to win up to $1 billion in matching federal infrastructure funding. Other items include $80 million for housing initiatives, $31 million for an emergency medical services grant program and nearly $5 million to fund a portion of her “Dirigo Business Incentive” to revise and expand several business tax breaks.
It leaves $12 million for the Legislature to consider how to spend.
maine budget talks
Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the budget committee chair, told the Bangor Daily News every lawmaker “has their own individual priorities” but that her caucus is committed to pairing tax relief with investments in “child care, affordable housing, emergency medical services, paid family medical leave and other initiatives that make it possible for working families to thrive in Maine.”
The task now at hand for lawmakers is to pass the budget addition by the end of June, with numerous public hearings in the next few weeks as open- and closed-door negotiations also take place.
Last week, some of the closed-door disagreements between Mills and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, spilled into the open, a rare occurrence during Mills’ tenure.
The dispute involves the governor’s office rebuking the progressive House speaker for threatening to oppose a revised budget if Mills does not support several measures that would expand tribal rights in Maine.
Talbot Ross is pushing Mills to support a bill mirroring parts of a federal law on the handling of child abuse and neglect cases involving tribal children, as well as a state constitutional amendment forcing treaty obligations to be printed alongside the Maine Constitution and a bill to give tribes veto power over certain laws affecting them.
Scott Ogden, the governor’s spokesperson, said Talbot Ross’ chief of staff spoke with his counterpart in Mills’ office Thursday to outline those budget demands from the speaker.
Talbot Ross’ office has declined to comment on that dispute with Mills and on other budget conversations, but Ogden criticized the speaker’s actions as “more like a tactic out of a Washington, D.C. playbook than how we govern here in Maine.”
Rep. Aaron Dana, a non-voting member who represents the Passamaquoddy Tribe, said he has not been a part of the discussions between Talbot Ross and Mills.
Republicans may seek to gain some leverage from the intraparty bickering among Democrats, but Democrats are still in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding how to approve and change the governor’s nearly $900 million budget addition before July.
maine budget woes
GOP leadership had planned on sharing updates Tuesday on tax cut proposals in response to the governor’s revised budget proposal, but due to scheduling issues, the Republican news conference was pushed to Thursday.
Last month, Republicans doubled their initial tax cut demand to $400 million after state forecasters predicted $294 million more in revenue through mid-2025 than previously anticipated.
Under the normal process in Maine that requires bipartisan buy-in, budgets are negotiated in late June but approved with two-thirds majorities so they take effect immediately at the start of the new fiscal year in July. If Republicans once again do not join Democrats to pass this next spending proposal, it will take effect three months after lawmakers leave for the year.
Republicans have already panned the governor’s revised proposal in a statement as “not responsive to the times, or responsive to the needs of the Maine people.”
Correction: Democrats have majorities in both chambers of the Maine Legislature, not two-thirds supermajorities. An earlier version of this story described the majorities incorrectly.