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Maine Lawmakers on Track to Enact Bipartisan Budget Plan
06/13/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Lawmakers in the Maine House and Senate are expected to work late into the night to enact a new $6.3 billion budget that will direct state spending for the next two years. But despite majority support in the House and Senate, the financial agreement is far from a done deal. The budget contains new tax increases opposed by Republicans, some of whom will be needed to provide the two-thirds support in the Legislature necessary to overturn a promised veto by Gov. Paul LePage. A.J. Higgins has more.

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By the time lawmakers arrived to work Thursday morning, a major obstacle to advancing the compromise budget in the House and Senate had been removed. The night before, the Maine Senate had signed off on a proposal favored by Gov. Paul LePage that repays nearly a half-billion dollars in state Medicaid debt owed to Maine's hospitals.

Lawmakers in the House quickly approved the plan and sent it back to the Senate where action in preparation for a final vote to expand Medicaid for 70,000 Mainers had already gotten underway. Both issues were well along in the process when members of the House took the budget up in the mid-afternoon session, where Appropriations House Chair Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat, emphasized that the budget reflected the political dynamics at the State House.

"In a divided government, you must be willing to give, and make, hard choices," Rotundo said. "It is in these moments of divided government that we all have the hardest choice to make. Will we stay at the table? Will we seek common ground? Will we set party and ideology aside in order to meet our obligations to the people of Maine? This is the choice each and every one of us must make today."

Reacting to a budget proposal from LePage that was opposed by Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, the panel crafted a compromise plan to offset much of a proposed $200 million suspension in municipal revenue sharing funds that town and city managers across the state say would surely result in local property tax increases.

But each side made some big concessions. For Republicans on the panel, it meant accepting a half-cent increase to the state's current 5 percent sales tax, and a 1 percent increase to the food and lodging tax that will raise the rate to 8 percent.
Democrats had to accept a LePage plan that requires municipalities to pay for half of the state's teacher retirement costs, as well as a $1 million cut to the state's Clean Elections Fund. That effectively eliminates all money for any publicly-funded gubernatorial candidates next year.

Democratic House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham told his seatmates that everyone in the House should be pleased with the compromise budget plan that he said did more than just reduce the cuts to municipal revenue sharing to $75 million.

"It's a responsible solution that restores funds to Maine's public schools and covers part of the costs for teacher retirements, putting Maine on an incremental track to meet the voter-approved 55 percent mandate," Berry said. "And it's a responsible solution that restores merit, longevity pay and retiree health insurance to state workers, like state police officers, who have not had a raise in four years."

But not everyone was happy.

"This budget will affect my kids and my grandchildren, so I'm going to tell you right now that I will be voting against this budget," said Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake.

Timberlake, a Republican from Turner, joined other members of his party in supporting a number of amendments that defunded aspects of the plan. Much of the GOP opposition focuses on tax increases, but House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, said he would support the compromise.

"I rise in support of the budget," Fredette said. "I do so, however, knowing that our economy is just beginning to recover from a half decade of economic distress."

The House eventually beat back 10 attempts at amending the budget bill and sent it to the Senate with a 102-47 vote of support -- one more than is needed to override a LePage veto.


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