Lawmakers set for final push

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AUGUSTA (AP) – The Legislature’s budget-writing and tax panels went back to work Tuesday on the eve of a final push toward adjournment by the full House and Senate.

Committee members met behind closed doors as lobbyists stretched lazily in hearing room seats or stood watch along State House corridors, occasionally grabbing passing panelists seeking updates on the private deliberations.

“A lot’s going on,” said House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick, sliding from one meeting to another.

Richardson said the House and Senate could wrap up their regular session chores for the year by the end of the weekend “if things work reasonably well.”

Lawmakers have been out for a week and a half and return today to take up dozens of bills.

Among remaining issues are proposed changes in the state’s Dirigo Health program and the elimination of a personal property tax sought by the business community.

With the Taxation Committee split into Democratic and Republican caucuses discussing the state’s business equipment tax reimbursement process, Richardson said he observed “very serious negotiations about how to come together” on the BETR program.

The subject of Dirigo, which became law in 2003 and was designed to provide access to health care for 130,000 uninsured and underinsured Mainers, was still being debated by various stakeholder groups, the speaker said.

Among the items expected to generate floor debate Wednesday is a highway funding package that could involve new borrowing.

Last week, Richardson said that while he agrees with supporters of a $60 million highway bond that such borrowing is needed, he would abide by an agreement reached in the course of closing a supplemental budget last month and vote against it.

The spending adjustment package directs more than $41 million to local school aid and $29 million to special reserve funds and replaced $25 million in borrowing proposed by Gov. John Baldacci with $15 million in cash for highway and bridge work.

“I gave my word when we reached a two-thirds budget that I would not support either general obligation or GARVEE bonds for transportation,” Richardson said in a statement.

So-called GARVEE bonds, his office explained, are specialized bonds issued in anticipation of expected federal transportation funds.

“That does not mean I don’t think there’s a pressing need,” he said. “I think there is a critical and pressing need for transportation infrastructure.”

Lawmakers Wednesday offered mixed views on whether the borrowing proposal could pass despite leadership opposition.

AP-ES-04-25-06 1630EDT

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