Budget approved as lawmakers meet without masks in Maine

June 30, 2021 GMT
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Member of the House of Representatives look up as a vote is tallied during the final session, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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Member of the House of Representatives look up as a vote is tallied during the final session, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Gathering without masks, Maine lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved an $8.5 billion budget on the eve of the new fiscal year. The budget includes a $300 hazard pay bonus for most workers.

Both chambers adopted the budget by a margin greater than a two-thirds majority, allowing it to go into effect upon the governor’s signature.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said the budget represents “an historic investment in Maine people.”

It boosts the state’s share of K-12 public education costs to 55%, meeting a goal established by state voters, while adding $45 million to the school renovation fund and $40 million for land conservation, and increasing revenue sharing with cities and towns. It also expands preventative dental care to more than 200,000 Mainers.

It does all that while adding to the state’s rainy day fund.

The new spending was made possible through more than $900 million in unanticipated revenues, based on updated projections.

The votes came as most lawmakers ditched their masks for the first time since lawmakers convened this year.

Lobbyists, lawmakers and laypeople crowded State House hallways without face coverings after the Legislative Council rescinded its COVID-19 restrictions last week. The governor’s state of civil emergency, imposed at the start of the pandemic, was to expire at midnight, as well.

Lawmakers already passed a bare-bones budget on a partisan vote in the Democratic-led Legislature. But there was bipartisan support on Wednesday for the budget revision.

“I know this legislative session has been particularly difficult because of the pandemic, and I want to applaud both Republicans and Democrats for working together in good-faith to negotiate a strong budget that we can enact immediately,” the governor said.

The updated budget proposal passed unanimously in the appropriations committee before going to floor votes.

“The Maine Legislature is sending a clear message to the people of the state of Maine: bipartisanship is alive and well in Augusta,” said Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen, co-chair of the appropriations committee.

Rep. Teresa Pierce, the House co-chair, lauded the investments in education while “maintaining strong fiscal responsibility.”

Local governments will get a break with the state finally picking up its full share of education costs. “This marks the first time Maine has met the 55 percent threshold since voters passed a referendum in 2004,” she said.

In other action, the Maine Legislature approved a bill to scrap Central Maine Power and Versant Power, the state’s largest electric utilities, and replace them with a consumer-owned utility.

The proposal previously failed by a single vote in the Senate, but it picked up support Wednesday after it was amended to spell out that the utility would have to pay property taxes to cities and towns.

Nonetheless, the bill that would create an entity called Pine Tree Power still lacked a two-thirds majority necessary to overcome a likely veto by Mills.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said it’s time to have a power grid that’s no longer “owned and run by those from far away” and are not invested in the state and its energy decisions.

“The Pine Tree Power Company will finally let us reinvest the money from our electricity bills back into the grid instead of sending it to investors overseas who have never set foot in Maine,” he said.

Critics said the proposal was costly and risky. Mills previously described the bill “as a rosy solution to a very complicated series of problems.”