Democratic lawmakers at the State House approved a plan on Thursday to spend $9.9 billion on Maine state government for the next two fiscal years.
The plan passed without Republican input or votes, similar to the last biennial budget, making Gov. Janet Mills responsible for more so-called “majority” biennial budgets than any other Maine governor in the past four decades.
To put the new budget into perspective, the last two-year budget passed under Gov. Paul LePage was just under $7.1 billion in general fund spending for two years.
That means the growth in state spending under Gov. Mills has far outpaced both inflation and changes in Maine’s population.
Republican lawmakers fiercely protested what they called a partisan spending spree that prioritized growing government ahead of helping working-class people in Maine.
“Maine Republicans want to help poor people,” House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) told the Maine Wire.
“Maine Democrats prioritize new government positions,” Faulkingham said.
Thursday’s acrimonious vote follows a breakdown last week in negotiations between Democratic and Republican budget negotiators. Republicans wanted to use increased future revenues to cover a modest state income tax reduction, but Democrats couldn’t support any tax decrease.
The budget, which Democrats have described as a “baseline budget” or a “continuing services budget,” will continue the expansion of state government that has unfolded since Mills took office. An estimated ninety new government positions will be created under the spending plan.
More than 15 percent of state jobs are currently unfilled, and unspent funding for those positions plus the new positions will go into what’s known as a “cascade” fund, which effectively becomes a slush fund for state agencies. Cascade funds move into pre-set categories to fund various programs and projects not expressly approved within the budget.
House Democrats approved the 411-page bill Thursday evening — less than 36 hours after the Revisor’s Office posted the final version. 77 Democrats and two unrolled reps voted in favor of the budget; 61 Republicans against. The Senate followed a few hours later with an equally partisan result.
Although major elements of the spending plan were in the public domain for nearly a week, neither the public nor Republican lawmakers had seen the language of the final bill and many proposed amendments prior to Wednesday afternoon.
Traditionally, Maine’s policymakers have passed massive biennial spending bills with two-thirds support from the legislature. Such budgets take effect immediately and avoid a potential government shutdown.
However, the Mills Administration collaborated with Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) on a set of procedural tactics that would enact the budget with only Democrat votes while ensuring no lapse in funding for state agencies later in the year.
As part of the parliamentary trick, the legislature adjourned after the budget vote. The sine die adjournment is typically done when the legislature has finished its business for the session, but it was invoked Thursday to start the clock on when the budget takes effect in three months. Mills was expected to use her constitutional authority to bring the legislature back for “extraordinary” circumstances, which will allow lawmakers to deal with the rest of the legislature’s business.
In the run up to Thursday’s vote, Republicans had been negotiating with their Democratic colleagues under the pretense that Mills, Jackson, and Ross were interested in pursuing a bipartisan budget deal.
But now many Republicans are questioning whether the partisan budget was really their plan all along.
Talks broke down Friday when Republicans made it clear that their support would be contingent on securing at least a modest reduction in the state income tax. The Republican proposal would have reduced the income tax rate on a Maine worker’s first $23,000 of income from 5.8 percent to 4.5 percent, a modest ask that reflected the GOP’s lack of bargaining power.
But Democrats quickly signaled their rejection of any tax rate decreases.
The final budget largely mirrors the $10.3 billion plan the Mills Administration proposed on January 11. It will continue the Covid-19 Era spending increases and the growth of government that has been fueled in large part by unprecedented federal funding. The final total came in lower than Mills originally wanted because of a law that caps the total rate of growth in General Fund spending.
But just because the budget Democrats approved Thursday, at $9.9 billion, fell short of the $10.3 billion mark doesn’t mean there won’t be more opportunities for lawmakers to spend additional money this year. In addition to myriad other proposed bills under consideration in Augusta, Democrats are expected to use the new special legislative session to pass at least $500 million in further spending through supplemental appropriations.
That means, in addition to the 90 new government positions created in the budget, the final total of new government positions created this year could come closer to the roughly 400 originally envisioned under Mills’ budget proposal.
What will the political fallout of a majority budget be?
Probably minimal. Maine’s liberal mainstream media, loathe to report critically on Democrats already, will be consumed with the news, also breaking Thursday evening, that former Republican President Donald Trump has been indicted in New York.
If history is any guide, cutting Republicans out of the biennial budget process will not resonate with Mainers in the next legislative elections, and Mills and other Democrats will pay little political price for pursuing a partisan budget.
In 2021, Mills pursued the same approach to the budget bill: cutting Republicans out of the negotiations and forcing through a Democrat-only budget after head-faking toward a bipartisan bill. But one year later, in gubernatorial debates, she falsely claimed on multiple occasions that the opposite happened, that the 2021 budget was bipartisan.
“We enacted a fully bipartisan budget,” Mills said, during 2022 debates with LePage.
“Maine has done a good job working across the aisle to enact a budget,” she said.
Although LePage attempted to draw attention to the discrepancy between what happened with the budget and what Mills claimed happened, very few political reporters drew attention to the rewriting of Maine political history, so most voters probably believed Mills had signed a bipartisan budget in 2021.
This isn’t the first time Mills has said one thing while campaigning for re-election before doing precisely the opposite during her second term as governor.
On several occasions during the campaign, Mills said she would pursue no changes to Maine’s abortion laws. But in January she joined far-left members of her party in backing changes to Maine’s abortion laws that will allow abortion up to the point of birth and potentially after.
The Democratic majorities rejected every Republican amendment during Thursday’s floor debates.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lisa Keim (R-Oxford) and Rep. Rachel Ann Henderson (R-Rumford) both submitted amendments that would have stripped funding from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for taxpayer funded abortions.
Both amendments were quickly killed by Democrats.
Sen. Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin) and Rep. Laurel Libby (R-Auburn) both submitted amendments to change Maine’s license plate motto from “Vacationland” to “Taxationland,” and both amendments died quickly.
Much as in 2021, Republicans are now saying the partisan budget will poison whatever goodwill might have existed between the parties at the State House.
But the Democrats have decided that this calculated and divisive play is worth more than any goodwill with Republicans, even if it comes in sharp contrast to the image of bipartisanship and compromise Mills displayed during her re-election campaign.
There was no clearer expression of the partisan “New Normal” of Maine’s political culture than a radio interview Sen. Jackson gave on Tuesday.
Jackson angered many Republicans by making a host of claims about Republican proposals to WVOM’s Ric Tyler that weren’t true.
Jackson said Republicans had proposed a major tax break on Maine’s dwindling millionaire class, but no such proposal was ever made.
Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) later said Jackson’s words were a “flat out lie” that he invented in order to put words in Republicans’ mouths.
Jackson did not respond to an inquiry from the Maine Wire asking what information he based his claims on.
How Republicans navigate having a second partisan budget forced upon them by Mills remains to be seen, but many Republican elected officials have said the actions their colleagues took this week have crossed the proverbial Rubicon.
Yet even if Republicans decided to adapt to the raw power politics on display in Augusta this week, it’s unclear what levers of power they have at their disposal with minorities in both the House and Senate.
Near the end of the night, before the Senate had cast its final votes, Stewart rose to reveal that he’d just received an email from none other than Jackson — right in the middle of the debate.
That email tarred Maine Republicans as obstructionists and asked readers to donate money to Democrats.
The email was, Stewart said, obviously a fundraising email written by Democratic operatives for the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, not Jackson himself
But the plea for money yet again, Stewart said, put the lie to claims from Democratic leaders that they were interested in sincere bipartisan negotiations.
The email went out at 7:15 pm EST.
The Senate voted on party lines just before 9pm EST to adopt Mills’ second majority budget.