Lawmakers reach budget agreement, approve House Speaker’s housing bill

0
9

The Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) met late on the evening of April 14 and voted unanimously to approve the supplemental budget.

The budget includes $850 direct relief checks for eligible Mainers, the amount originally proposed by Gov. Janet Mills, but they will be sent to a larger number of people. Mills’ original proposal called for checks to be sent to married individuals filing joint returns whose income was less than $150,000, married individuals filing separately whose income was under $75,000, single individuals whose income was less than $75,000, and heads of household whose income was under $112,500.

The AFA committee voted to increase the income threshold, increasing the number of people eligible to receive checks to approximately 857,000 Mainers, according to Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford). Single-income households earning less than $100,000, heads of households earning less than $150,000, and married individuals filing jointly and earning less than $200,000 are now eligible to receive the relief checks.

As a result of the increase to the income threshold, approximately $729 million of the $1.2 billion budget will be allocated to relief checks, an increase from the $682 million Mills proposed in her supplemental budget and through the change package.

Before the committee voted unanimously to move the relief checks into the budget, Millett thanked everyone who had worked on the issues and said he was hopeful it would survive the legislative process to “allow the issuance of payments electronically to the extent possible and as soon as possible.”

The AFA committee also made several changes to the budget cascade. 

Mills’ original budget proposal allocated a $100 million transfer from the unappropriated surplus of the General Fund to funds controlled by the Department of Transportation. Mills’ originally proposed transferring $85 million for roads and bridges and $15 for multimodal transportation projects.

The AFA committee voted to approve the amount Mills’ proposed for transportation, but changed the allocations. The budget now includes a $15 million appropriation from the General Fund in fiscal year 2023 for roads and bridges, but would add $35 million to the budget cascade for the highway fund. It would become the fifth item in the budget cascade, immediately following items required by statute.

The committee also altered the distribution of the final 20% of funds allocated by the cascade, assigning the first $15 million in funds to the DOT’s multimodal program. The change fits within the existing cascade structure and does not change the amount of the appropriation requested by Mills. 

The committee also voted to approve the creation of an Education Stabilization Fund, the purpose of which is to help maintain the state’s commitment to funding 55% of state education costs. Language in the budget mirrors language in LD 1963, a bill recently passed by the legislature and which is currently sitting on the special appropriations table pending enactment.

The committee also voted to halve the amount of the appropriation proposed by Mills, from $30 million to $15 million. A fixed amount will be transferred every fiscal year, following the initial transfer in the current budget. According to Millett, the fund would become the sixth item in the budget cascade.

A final change to the budget cascade involved a $2.5 million transfer from the unappropriated General Fund surplus to the reserve fund for operating capital, to be used when disasters occur in the state. The transfer would occur last in the budget cascade, following the changes made for transportation and education spending.

The AFA committee also voted to increase the cost of living increase for individuals in the Maine Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). Currently, the cost of living adjustment for pensions is capped at 3%. The committee voted to raise the base to 5.4% because of inflation. Mills’ proposal allocated $14.7 million to PERS to fund a retirement benefits reserve account. The AFA Committee approved a $104.8 million appropriation, which includes funds to increase the cost of living adjustment.

Other additions to the budget made by the AFA committee include a tax exemption that will raise the exemption for pension income for state employees and teachers to approximate the amount Social Security exempts, and a $100,000 one-time fund to reimburse municipalities for mandated costs related to ordinance changes for additional dwelling units. This change is related to LD 2003, the housing bill sponsored by Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) that is currently being debated by the legislature.

The committee also voted to move several pieces of legislation into the budget, including LD 393, a bill that seeks to improve the child welfare system by providing support to families at risk of child neglect and abuse, according to Rep. Patty Hymanson (D-York.) The bill includes a roughly $2.7 million appropriation in fiscal year 2022-2023.

The approved budget leaves approximately $12 million unallocated for lawmakers to spend on their remaining priorities. 

Legislative Session Wednesday, April 13

Both chambers of the legislature met for the third consecutive day on April 13. The Senate finally passed LD 1129, a bill the legislature had previously passed but recalled from Mills’ desk for further amendment.

It also placed LD 1523, a bill that creates the Trust for a Healthy Maine to receive money the state receives from the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, on the special appropriations table. The bill’s attached fiscal note includes a General Fund appropriation of roughly $36.6 million for fiscal year 2022-2023. 

Following debate, the Senate passed to engross LD 906, a bill involving the Passamaquoddy tribe’s access to clean drinking water. The bill had previously been tabled. It was passed to be enacted on the same day in the House of Representatives and finally passed by the Senate on April 14.

The House also voted 75 to 52 to advance LD 1899, a bill that defines and requires the creation of medical safety zones around buildings where people receive healthcare. The bill would make it a crime to prohibit a person from entering a medical safety zone or obstruct a medical safety zone. 

Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) spoke in opposition to the bill, noting that the Christian Civic League of Maine and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine are both opposed to it. Rep. Jennifer Poirier (R-Skowhegan) also spoke in opposition to the bill, saying she doesn’t oppose the creation of the medical safety zones but did oppose language in the bill putting responsibility for establishing them on municipalities.

Rep. Joyce McCreight (D-Harpswell) spoke in favor of the bill, saying she believes it still respects people’s constitutional rights.

The House also advanced LD 1693, a bill that would create the Trust for a Healthy Maine and the Office of Population Health Equity. It would also create an obesity advisory council within the Department of Education (DOE).

An amendment removing a proposed requirement that the DOE adopt rules revising school nutrition and physical activity standards to increase obesity prevention was adopted by the House by a vote of 81 to 57. The bill then moved to the Senate, where it was tabled.

Legislative Session Thursday, April 14

On April 14, the Senate, which met earlier in the day than the House, voted to advance LD 2010, a bill sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) that would provide energy relief payments to medium commercial customers.

The bill would provide rebates of either $1,500, $2,000, or $3,000 to medium-usage commercial customers of investor-owned utilities, depending on electricity usage, by October 30 2022. It has a fiscal note of roughly $8.5 million.

The Senate also debated LD 1911, a bill that would prevent the spreading of septage on state lands and require individuals licensed to discharge wastewater to sample for the presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Following extensive debate, the Senate voted 30 to 4 to adopt the bill. The Senate then voted to adopt a floor amendment removing language in the bill that prohibited produce grown on land where septage is spread from being sold. The amendment won over holdout support from Republican senators and led to the bill being advanced unanimously.

When the House met later in the day, it also voted to advance the bill. Before final passage, it will still need to be approved once more in both chambers.

LD 2003

After over an hour of debate, the House also voted to advance LD 2003, a bill intended to increase affordable housing, sponsored by Fecteau.

Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland), who rose to speak in favor of the bill, said it was one of the most important bills of the session. 

“When you are in the situation we are in today, with 58% of Maine people unable to afford a median priced apartment or home to purchase, that is the crisis we are in. This particular policy is tied with one other policy, and the reason they are tied is they go together. We can’t get out of this problem if we can’t build housing available for people at every income level. We just cannot. The reason why we can’t build the units we need today is we are prohibited by local ordinances throughout the state of Maine. There are hundreds of regulations in nearly 200 municipalities and they are all different. They force builders and homeowners and engineers and staff to hire attorneys to work through these various municipal regulations. Many of these have been in place for many years and what they’ve done is prohibit housing,” said Morales.

Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) spoke in opposition to the bill, expressing concern the bill “imposes fixes that are top-down and one-size-fits-all,” and said it erodes local control.

“Towns and communities are made up of individual citizens, many of whom own private property, who agree on a social compact to live together as a community. They consent to form a local government and to elect local leaders to run that local government. Towns run on the quintessential New England style town meeting and on local votes by select boards and planning boards in between town meetings every year. This bill takes a bulldozer to that structure of community, connectedness and self-determination. It is antithetical to everything that makes us Mainers and proud New Englanders. That is why this bill must be voted down in this chamber,” said Andrews.

Fecteau also rose to speak in favor of the bill, saying Maine has a supply and demand issue that needs housing of all kinds to fix. Fecteau said the bill has changed a lot since its first iteration and respects compromise among the parties involved. He also noted the bill has support from a number of organizations, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine People’s Alliance and the AARP, among others, with interests that often do not align.

The Maine Municipal Association does not support the bill.

The bill was advanced by a vote of 78 to 51. Fecteau then offered a floor amendment, which passed under the hammer. The Senate also gave initial approval to the bill on Friday. It still requires one vote in each chamber before it can advance to the governor’s desk.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here