State of Maine: Lawmakers have six weeks

Finally the temperature is rising and Maine is beginning to blossom. It is an exquisite time of year, with tiny baby leaves cautiously unfurling, shoots of green popping up in the garden and, most beautiful of all, flowering trees showing off their ephemeral glory.

The temperature is rising in Augusta, too. Statutory adjournment is June 19, just six weeks away. What felt like oceans of time in January has now dwindled down to a scant 30 business days. First and foremost is the budget. It is a bill like any other, with legislative sponsors, public hearings and many, many work sessions. And, like any other, it needs only a majority vote to pass. However, a majority vote would have to occur 90 days prior to adjournment, about March 19 this year.

For most bills, the implementation date is not critical. The 90-day waiting period (constitutionally provided to allow time for a “people’s veto”) means that most bills take effect by September at the latest. An “emergency measure” takes effect as soon as it is signed by the governor and must have passed with a 2/3 vote in the Legislature.

In addition to giving the Appropriations Committee more time to work on the budget, the emergency provision with its 2/3 vote requirement means there must be some degree of buy-in from the minority party. The majority party would have to have a 2/3 majority in both chambers before the sentiments of the minority could be ignored.

Governor Janet Mills’ first-term pledge not to raise taxes was warmly welcomed by minority Republicans. Majority Democrats were less pleased. Post-Governor Paul LePage there was considerable pent-up demand for spending by Democrats, whether it was to meet the statutory requirements of K-12 education funding or to fully fund state-municipal revenue sharing.

Then there are all the other programs Democrats have been dying to begin or expand, none of which could happen during the LePage administration. Not that all of these are unnecessary, mind you. Public health nursing visits to newborns and their families? Do it! It gets the little teenies off to a better start and pays dividends if it leads to healthier families over time.

Fiscal restraint, the watchword of Republicans, is important, too. As a state, we are old and poor, and lavish spending in Augusta would not be helpful. On the other hand, a well-maintained infrastructure is essential to Maine’s economic development, and it is not cheap. Roads, schools and utilities (including broadband) require investment.

A lot of that investment comes from bonds. Maine’s extensive road system needs money. Republicans argue that bonded indebtedness is too costly, burdening future generations. They are not wrong in principle, but attempting to raise road maintenance funds solely through appropriations would be a hard sell.

Another enterprise depending on bonding is research and development. There is not an economic development report in our state that does not propose greater investment in R&D. In the late ’90s, Maine developed a Maine Biomedical Research Fund, a competitive program through which established research enterprises could apply for infrastructure funding. That strengthened Maine’s capacity for R&D, and most of the early grantees have grown.

Bonded indebtedness in Maine now stands at about $376 million. Democratic proposals would move that figure well north of a billion dollars. No way will the final package come in at that amount. Debt service payments this year stood at $93 million, $20 million of that in interest payments.

To date, there are 36 proposals in the Legislature for bonds this year. They include funding for railroad infrastructure, municipal culverts, climate change, a fish hatchery, fire stations, housing for the homeless, student debt relief, a Portland convention center, food processing infrastructure and aquaculture.

Just one is sponsored by a Republican. Rep. Justin Fecteau of Augusta holds the honor. His bond, LD 859, would provide funds for “equipment for career and technical education centers and regions.” Community colleges and vocational and technical education have often been supported by Republicans.

Though Rep. Fecteau is the lone Republican prime sponsor of a bond, there are Republican co-sponsors on others. Replenishing the Land for Maine’s Future fund enjoys bipartisan support, as do the bonds for rural broadband internet access and culverts, among others. Climate change? Not so much.

Bond bills require a minimum 2/3 vote to send them out for public approval. With the bonding we do, Maine still stands below the national average in tax-supported debt ($900 per resident, compared to $986.50 nationally.)

Governor Mills’ budget Hoovers up almost all of the available revenue and other loose change in the state system. The Legislature’s fiscal office gets moist palms when the margin of revenue over spending is only in six-figure territory. The hardest work is still ahead for appropriators.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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