House hits snag on spending cap override votes

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AUGUSTA – Cast as a concession to bipartisanship by Democrats and as a first step that doesn’t go far enough by Republicans, a proposal to set legislative thresholds of two-thirds support for most spending above a legally set cap won a unanimous vote Tuesday in the Maine Senate.

Follow-up action in the House of Representatives, however, snagged over a question about the constitutionality of such a requirement.

Pending a House request for advice from the Attorney General’s Office, no further action is expected before next week when the Legislature reconvenes.

Meanwhile, an extended Senate debate over the primacy of majority rule versus citizen demand for curbs on government spending indicated that last fall’s referendum vote to reject a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights continues to reverberate in the capital.

On Monday, the Legislature’s joint rules committee voted unanimously to recommend super-majority approval for spending cap overrides.

For now, that kind of requirement would appear to be largely symbolic.

The existing statutory formula allows for general spending growth of 3.08 percent in the upcoming two-year budget cycle and does not apply to substantial planned growth in money for local schools, a top Baldacci administration official said.

According to gubernatorial Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Low, Gov. John Baldacci’s new $6.4 billion budget package for the 2008-2009 biennium would fall about $68 million under the caps for each of the two coming years. A supplemental spending package going before lawmakers would also not approach a cap, Low said.

Republicans pushed in committee and again Tuesday on the Senate floor for broader rule changes to make raising revenue more difficult, without success.

Stricter fiscal cap overrides were an issue during last year’s referendum debate.

Just a few weeks before the election, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to the citizen initiative, calling it too broad and suggesting that better ways could be found to offer tax relief, control the growth of government spending and stimulate the economy.

An alternative envisioned by the chamber would include new requirements for overriding spending limits.

AP-ES-01-09-07 1530EST

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