Gridlock breaks as Legislature’s budget committee agrees on $41 million in spending

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AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee voted unanimously Monday to endorse a package of bills that would add about $41 million in spending to the state’s two-year budget, with much of the funding aimed at helping those with disabilities, the elderly or people in the grip of opioid use disorders.

The 12-0 vote on the package, which rolls about a dozen other bills into one big spending measure, comes about two weeks after the committee approved another trio of bills. The action moves the Legislature one step closer to returning for a special session that would allow lawmakers to finish their work.

The Legislature adjourned in gridlock on May 2 amid disagreement between Democrats who wanted funding for a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid and Republicans who wanted to slow minimum wage increases. Lawmakers agreed Monday to hold a separate vote on Medicaid expansion funding and not fold it into a package with other spending measures.

Among the measures approved by the committee Monday is one that would remove 300 people from a state waiting list for services for the disabled at a rate of 50 people a month, starting in October. Also included was $600,000 from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to help fund school-based health centers.

Still missing from this package, and from another package passed on May 31, were borrowing measures that would go to statewide votes in November, including $100 million earmarked for roads, bridges and port facilities. That measure is an important one for the Maine Department of Transportation, which counts on about $100 million of borrowing each year to keep its ongoing work plan in action. The bill is also time-sensitive, according to transportation officials, who have said if the Legislature does its part by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year, that would allow the state to apply for a large amount of matching federal matching funds.

State House leaders, including the speaker of the House, the Senate president and the leaders of the majority and minority caucuses in both the House and the Senate, were meeting Monday trying to reach agreement on the borrowing packages. The borrowing could include $50 million and $75 million for infrastructure improvements for new or renovated classrooms and labs for the University of Maine System.

The June 30 deadline is also critical to measures approved by the committee that would allow for increased reimbursement rates for direct care workers in group homes for the disabled and for nursing home workers. Many of then would face a sharp pay cut if the measures are not moved forward.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said his caucus was going to meet later in the day in a private session away from the State House to discuss whether they wanted to return to work now that a framework of bills that both parties seemed to agree on was being put together. Fredette also said leaders had reached a broad agreement on a borrowing package that would be in the vicinity of $200 million, including the highway bonding package, funding for wastewater infrastructure improvements and some of University of Maine System requests.

“Look, I think if that can happen our members are going to be more than willing to come back in and do the work that everybody agrees on,” Fredette said.

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said he believed the committee would eventually get a unanimous agreement on a borrowing package, which would be needed to persuade House Republicans to support a return for a special session.

“We’re almost ready,” Timberlake said. “They are not going to come back until you figure out what we are going to do with bonds. We would like to come back when everything is done, so when we go upstairs there’s either an agreement or an agreement to disagree.”

Timberlake said the Legislature would have to reconvene and pass bills early next week in order to give Republican Gov. Paul LePage 10 days to sign or veto the bills and enable lawmakers to hold veto override votes before June 30.

Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which has advocated for the Medicaid expansion approved by voters, said her organization was pleased by the progress made Monday. “The fact that they are moving forward and making progress, I think, bodes really well for Medicaid expansion,” Merrill said.

In a prepared statement issued later in the day Monday, Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said the Legislature was poised to return to work after weeks of gridlock.

“While the last six weeks have been challenging and unpredictable, this bipartisan package will provide needed relief to our seniors, our kids and so many struggling Maine families,” Gideon said.

She noted that while Democrats had agreed to take a separate vote on Medicaid expansion, Republicans had rolled back on their demands to tinker with the voter-approved minimum wage, which will climb from $10 an hour this year to $11 an hour in 2019 and $12 an hour in 2020.

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