Key Democrats are not even aligning on some major state budget priorities.
Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, speaks at the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Maine budgets are often crafted in a white-knuckle legislative process ending in June. The one this year is looking especially uncertain.

Key Democrats are not even aligning on some major priorities. There is also a political hangover from the majority budget that they bypassed Republicans to enact in March. The chambers have been working at a grueling pace over the past week to churn out bills, leaving little time for the budget panel to meet enough to alter Gov. Janet Mills’ $900 million proposal.

Good and bad: Lawmakers were able to settle one outstanding issue this week, when the Senate unanimously passed a transportation budget that mostly hews to a Republican-led compromise on the subject but switched an existing tax that will move funding from the state budget to the separate one funding road projects.

Getting that settled was an important step for lawmakers. But they have not solved other issues that would have major budget implications. For example, a paid family and medical leave bill from leading Democrats could carry $65 million in startup costs.

Mills’ budget offer does not include that money, and the governor has been critical of the idea alongside business interests. Lawmakers would also have to change her budget to allow for a major child care overhaul led by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, even though he has already secured the administration’s approval of the package.

What they’re saying: Without a good idea of how big items will land, the budget panel cannot really craft a final document. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a top appropriator, said there are many “unresolved issues.” He also said canceled meetings due to floor sessions are hampering efforts, although the budget committee met for 45 minutes of votes on Wednesday.

“I don’t think there’s a lack of good will here,” Bennett said. “I think there’s a lack of time.”

What’s next: Another question is whether Democrats will move this budget by themselves. The transportation work proved bipartisan, but lawmakers were facing a messy partial shutdown at the Department of Transportation and other agencies if it did not pass by July 1. Since Democrats passed a state budget in March, there is no threat of a shutdown now.

But if they cannot bring Republicans along in a deal, the new budget would not become law for three months. The minority party will likely require concessions to sign on, with tax cuts and welfare changes atop their list. The next few days will show the direction of these talks.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...