AUGUSTA (AP) – While the Maine Senate rejected a bill Tuesday seeking “super-majority” legislative votes to increase taxes, the House voted in an unusual procedure to spare traffic law violators from 10 percent surcharges.

The votes came as lawmakers, back from a long Memorial Day holiday weekend, chipped away at scores of bills awaiting final disposition and prepared to focus on two of the session’s major themes: tax reform and health care.

A bill that received little attention during this year’s session sought to impose 10 percent surcharges, mostly on fines for moving traffic violations, to raise money to help counties meet rising costs of maintaining jails.

The bill appeared to be headed for easy passage without debate because it had received unanimous support of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

But the free ride hit a wall when one member of the committee, Rep. Lois Snowe-Mello of Poland, said she wanted the bill killed.

Snowe-Mello told the House she changed her mind after realizing that the state courts sharply increased state fines this year and argued it wasn’t right to pile more hikes on violators, many of whom already have trouble finding money to pay fines.

Other lawmakers saw the surcharges in a different light.

“What we’re really talking about is taxes,” said Rep. Roger Sherman, R-Hodgdon.

Democratic Rep. Janet Mills of Farmington said there’s an “annual temptation” by legislators to ratchet up fines whenever the state faces a budget shortfall. Lawmakers this session must still address a $48 million budget gap.

Mills, a former prosecutor, also noted that surcharges have already been added on four or five times on fines for many violations.

Rep. George Bunker, House chairman of the criminal justice panel, said the surcharges are intended to raise $2.2 million of the roughly $5 million needed to help Maine’s counties address unmet costs of operating jails.

Without the surcharges, property taxpayers will have to foot the whole bill, said Bunker, D-Kossuth Township.

Later, the Senate voted 18-15 to reject a bill seeking a state constitutional amendment that would require two-thirds votes of both the House and Senate to raise state taxes. The proposed amendment itself would need a two-thirds majority vote of approval in order to be sent to Maine voters for final approval.

Republican supporters said Maine taxpayers are concerned that lawmakers are raising and spending taxpayers’ money too fast.

“I think the time has come for the Legislature of Maine to adopt some kind of discipline,” said Sen. Richard Nass, R-Acton.

Democratic Sen. John Martin of Eagle Lake dismissed the bill as a perennial measure that’s “a great tool to campaign on,” but “inappropriate” considering the realities of state budgeting and needs.

Martin acknowledged that increases in state spending have exceeded the rate of inflation, but said most of the new revenues have gone to local governments or Medicaid.

Another Democrat, Majority Leader Sharon Treat of Farmingdale, took issue with suggestions that the Legislature must be forced into fiscal control, noting that lawmakers recently cut income, sales and property taxes by $400 million.


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