AUGUSTA – Maine lawmakers, stalled on several fronts, have been given some time off to relax and regroup before resuming their final push to rebalance the state budget and respond to restive property taxpayers.

The Senate and House of Representatives will reconvene a week from Tuesday to wrap up their chores. Between now and then, discussions involving legislative leaders and Gov. John Baldacci are expected to focus on a supplemental spending plan for fiscal 2005 and various options for reducing, or at least easing upward pressures on, an overall tax burden that is already the subject of two pending referendum questions.

Action on the budget was sidetracked late Friday night as Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, pushed for an amendment that would bar the University of Maine System from a number of reorganizational steps without notifying the Legislature.

Talks on tax relief, a topic that has occupied lawmakers from the start of the current two-year session, had yet to produce agreement.

“We are taking this short break so that staff can have sufficient time to finishing drafting the several tax reform proposals developed by legislators,” Senate Majority Leader Sharon Anglin Treat, D-Farmingdale, said in a statement.

Senate Democrats have proposed a 1-cent hike in the sales tax to boost education funding and increase the homestead exemption to $11,000 for resident homeowners.

Baldacci opposes a sales tax increase and House Democrats have discussed ways to raise so-called sin taxes as another approach toward a tax system overhaul.

Minority Republicans have complained of being shunted to the sidelines in the budget and tax relief discussions. As the House prepared to adjourn late Friday night, Speaker Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, pledged to make room at the table for the GOP.

“Unequivocally yes,” he told state representatives still assembled in a chamber that had been the scene of several emotional confrontations in the days leading up to the 10-day recess.

“We have been pushing hard for tax relief, and after months of careful consideration and negotiation and crafting, we should not rush in over a period of a few hours and not give this the best we have to give,” House Majority Leader John Richardson, D-Brunswick, said in a statement. “This gives us an opportunity to slow things down, to rest, and to finish this off the right way.”

Another unresolved issue on the financial front is the matter of new state borrowing. Any accord to issue new bonds would require some level of bipartisan cooperation, offering the Republican House and Senate minorities more leverage than they might have been able to exert in the budget and tax policy bargaining.

Colwell told House members the late session break would allow lawmakers to “take a step back” and enable negotiators to “meet together in calmer surroundings.”

Upon their return, the House and Senate could also take up numerous other pieces of legislation, including any measures vetoed by Baldacci.

Among things pending is a decision on when a tax-cap citizen initiative should be put before voters.

On Friday night, the Maine Senate unanimously approved an amendment designed to provide $6 million to compensate victims of abuse at Maine’s Baxter school.

Baldacci administration officials said the amendment calls for a debt restructuring worth about $8 million in all. It was endorsed 35-0.

AP-ES-04-17-04 1633EDT


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