Maine Dems want to split the budget process. What will that mean for critical funding priorities?
Democratic legislators are rushing to pass something called a “continuing services” budget by the end of this week.
While the legislative jargon may prompt a shrug from many readers, the move could help Democrats overcome Republican obstruction and fund important priorities like housing, healthcare, childcare, paid family leave and new initiatives to combat the climate and overdose crises.
The process works like this: Lawmakers have until March 31 to pass a two-year budget by a simple majority in order for it to take effect by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Failure to meet the end-of-month deadline means that the budget must be passed as an emergency measure, requiring approval of two-thirds of the legislature by July or the state will shut down completely — as it did during a budget standoff under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
Though it has become the norm, a two-thirds budget gives Republicans incredible leverage through the threat of a government shutdown to push for everything from tax cuts, to reductions in state services, or potentially even rolling back abortion protections. Willingness to make good on that threat has increasingly been used as a political strategy by the GOP at both the state and national levels.
Democrats can eliminate this possibility by splitting the budget in two. First, they could pass by the end of this week a continuing services budget that would only cover the state’s existing spending obligations. Then later this spring, they could consider funding new initiatives in a supplemental budget that could be passed with either two-thirds support or a simple majority.
Gov. Janet Mills has been meeting behind closed doors with leaders from both parties, hoping to secure bipartisan support for the continuing services budget — which, though unnecessary, she sees as politically important. Lawmakers emerged from those talks saying very little except that both sides are communicating about their priorities for the budget.
While a continuing services budget does not fully address pressing needs like childcare and the housing affordability crisis, it opens the door for those needs to be included in a supplemental budget later in the session.
Splitting the budget in two is nothing new. Maine Democrats used the tactic in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s to overcome Republican obstruction and once again in 2021 to avoid a potential shutdown in the middle of the pandemic.
Late Friday, the legislature’s budget-making committee announced it had approved the budget, saying it had been passed unanimously by the members present, though it did not specify who was there.
“Passing a two-part budget will allow the state to meet our obligations to Maine people, communities and businesses,” said Rep. Melanie Sachs (D-Freeport), the House chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee, in a statement ahead of the vote. “Additionally, this two-part budget will allow us the time and space necessary to continue vital discussions around new investments and initiatives. As we have heard during the public hearing process, the state is facing significant challenges that must be addressed.”
‘The state is facing significant challenges’
Those challenges are many. In a set of joint public hearings with various legislative committees and the AFA committee previously covered by Beacon, lawmakers heard about the need to invest in affordable housing, the care economy workforce and expanding healthcare to all Mainers.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report earlier this month showing that more than half of Maine’s lowest-income renters spend 50% or more of their money on housing. There are only 49 affordable apartments in Maine available for every 100 extremely low-income renters.
Mills’ initial budget proposal, released at the beginning of this year, would allocate just $30 million to build affordable housing through the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the federal Low-Income Housing Credit Program. Housing advocates have called for a much bigger investment as the proposed funds would build just an estimated 250 housing units.
Another funding priority for Democratic legislators will be subsidizing additional pay raises for early childhood educators, child welfare caseworkers and direct care workers, who say they are being driven out of these essential fields by low salaries.
Other major needs being discussed are startup costs for a proposed paid family leave program and raising cost-of-living adjustments for state retirees who have been pushed closer to poverty due to inflation coupled with drastic cuts made a decade ago to state employee and teacher pensions.
Also, harm reduction advocates are calling for more money in the budget for mental health and support services to address the overdose crisis. Mills’ proposed budget calls for $461 million for the Maine Department of Corrections and $127 million for policing, but demands comparatively less for non-carceral responses, such as $2.5 million to the Opioid Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment Fund and $3.7 million to the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Additionally, Democrats have yet to close a discriminatory loophole and restore healthcare access for all Mainers, regardless of their immigration status. Democrats have so far only been able to partially undo the measures passed by LePage in 2011 that barred immigrants from accessing a variety of programs, including MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.
A two-part budget gives Democrats a chance to meet more of these demands without handing Republicans the leverage to make cuts.