The 130th Maine Legislature is currently scheduled to adjourn its second session on April 20, giving legislators a little more than two weeks to negotiate and pass a supplemental budget in addition to finally dispensing with the remaining work before them.
In February, Gov. Janet Mills released a supplemental budget proposal with plans for spending all but $20 million of the state’s projected $1.2 billion General Fund surplus. The governor left the decisions for how to spend the $20 million in unallocated funds up to legislators in the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
On April 1, Republicans released their priorities for the supplemental budget, which include building on proposed stimulus checks and additional funding for healthcare and the environment.
Republicans would build on the proposed $850 direct relief checks for Maine residents who filed income tax returns in 2021, but unlike Mills’ proposal, which would send direct relief checks through the mail, Republicans want money to be electronically deposited when possible.
Republicans are also proposing to lift the eligibility cap for the relief check on individuals whose adjusted gross income is over $150,000 per year. Under Mills’ proposal, couples whose joint annual income is greater than $150,000 are not eligible to receive relief checks. Republicans would lift this cap, resulting in relief being sent to an estimated additional 120,000 people.
Mills’ proposed relief checks are expected to be sent to approximately 800,000 residents. Republicans believe approximately 920,000 Mainers would qualify to receive checks under their plan.
Republicans are also proposing to use the unallocated surplus to establish an annual sales tax holiday weekend, which would occur in early October. Their proposal places a $2,500 cap on any single item and would include exceptions for some purchases, such as tobacco and motorboats.
The Republican proposal also includes several initiatives focused on providing relief for healthcare workers and facilities, including a cost of living adjustment to support increasing wages to at least 125% of the minimum wage.
Other proposals include one-time supplemental payments for nursing homes, hospitals, and long-term care facilities, as well as funding for “add-on” payments to support the increased cost of staffing, and payments to help adjust for inflation in fiscal years 2021-2022 and 2022–2023.
Their proposal also includes support for language in Mills’ proposed change package to the supplemental budget, which directs the Department of Health and Human Services to make supplemental payments to Maine Veterans’ Homes of just over $1 million in fiscal year 2021-2022 and nearly $2.5 million 2022-2023 to offset budget shortfalls. As a condition of receiving the payments, Maine Veterans’ Homes is required to keep open homes in Caribou and Machias.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee (AFA) has already voted unanimously to accept this part of the governor’s budget. Additionally, the legislature passed and Mills signed into law on March 31 a bill that accomplishes this. The AFA committee voted to exempt the bill from the special appropriations table before its final passage, meaning it went into effect as soon as it was signed.
Republicans also support adding 600 additional slots for a program that provides in-home and community support for the elderly “in an effort to help keep older Maine residents in their homes.”
Other priorities include support for agricultural land contaminated by polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) in the form of increased laboratory testing capacity and staffing, as well as support for the Advisory Committee on the Fund to Address PFAS Contamination, an initiative in Mills’ change package.
Republicans also support eliminating the state’s 100-megawatt cap on hydroelectric generators.
“In a time of rising energy prices artificial limitations on renewable energy sources should be eliminated,” legislative Republicans said via press release.
Removing the cap on hydroelectric generators is also a proposal included in an amendment, brought by Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook), to the governor’s electric utility accountability bill. The Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology presented a divided report on LD 1959 and the legislature has yet to vote to accept any of the three competing reports, all of which amend the original bill.
At this point, it’s still hard to get into specifics. While the governor’s proposal leaves $20 million for lawmakers to spend, this number could change (in either direction) depending upon how the Legislature amends the supplemental budget proposal.
Right now, Sen. Cathy Breen’s primary focus as Senate Chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee is to work with her AFA Committee colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, to come up with a supplemental budget that represents and respects the priorities of the full Legislature. Naturally, this process requires lawmakers to compromise on issues, and accept that no one will get everything they want.
The AFA committee has already unanimously voted to accept a number of line items from Mills’ original supplemental budget proposal and from the change package.
According to Christine Kirby, the communications director for the Senate President’s office, the chairs of the committee and leaders of legislative caucuses have “worked hard to establish a good relationship.”
Kirby said Senate Democrats have “key themes” for unallocated funds and that a “number of key items are working their way through the Legislature.”
These included helping Mainers with the “sky-high” costs of energy, property taxes and healthcare, “bolstering access to quality, affordable child care,” investing in long-term care, supporting providers, and investing in career and technical education through targeted degree programs and workforce training to fill in gaps.