Panel favors super-majority to override spending cap


AUGUSTA (AP) – A panel of House and Senate lawmakers, partially bowing to public demands amplified by several major interest groups for new curbs on state spending, voted Monday to recommend that the full Legislature require super-majority approval for most appropriations that would exceed a current cap set by law.

Adoption of two-thirds approval thresholds in both the House and Senate for most spending over the current cap would appear to be largely symbolic for now.

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, who recently moved into the governor’s office from the post of state budget officer, 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.

Nonetheless, panelists from both parties said even a symbolic move had value.

Democrats on the Legislature’s joint rules committee said they were agreeing to a compromise that some believe weakens the notion of majority rule mainly to signal the public that the concern over Maine’s tax burden has been heard and to demonstrate a willingness to work cooperatively with the Republican House and Senate minorities.

The new requirement for two-thirds support for cap overrides, they said, should be only for the two-year term of newly elected lawmakers, leaving up to future legislators to decide whether to readopt a super-majority threshold or not.

“This is really insider stuff,” said Senate Majority Leader Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “But symbols can be really important.”

The author of the rule amendment, Republican Rep. Patrick Flood of Winthrop, said its adoption would demonstrate public voices can influence the Legislature. “People will be happy to hear that we’ve listened,” Flood said.

Stricter fiscal cap overrides were an issue during last year’s referendum debate over the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which was rejected by statewide voters.

In mid-October, 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.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the proposed joint rule change could come up for debate in the full Legislature as soon as Tuesday.

Baldacci, meanwhile, stepped up promotion of his new budget plan, telling a think-tank audience that higher tobacco taxes could improve public health and that more money for higher education and government-backed research and development could foster more jobs.

He also said overhauling the statewide network of school systems would give citizens more say.

Baldacci would shrink 152 district administrations to 26 units known as regional centers.

“Some people think 26 is too many. But I didn’t want to take any radical step forward,” Baldacci said to laughter at a Maine Center for Economic Policy at the Augusta Civic Center.