AUGUSTA (AP) – Acting on a closely scripted timetable, the Maine House gave initial approval Tuesday to a property tax relief package that calls for government spending caps and higher public school subsidies.

The vote, which came without debate or a roll call, was a routine first step to advance the bill as Tuesday afternoon’s deadline for amendments closed in. Floor debate is likely Wednesday when the amendments surface, and then the bill heads to the Senate on Thursday.

Under a schedule outlined by Democratic leaders, the bill would be put on Gov. John Baldacci’s desk for his signature by Thursday, the deadline for action they set weeks ago.

House Majority Leader Glenn Cummings said after Tuesday’s action that Democratic leaders urged their caucus not to submit amendments, which he said pose a danger of unraveling the carefully crafted package. But the Portland Democrat said he expects amendments to be offered.

Asked if he was optimistic the House and Senate can act within the tight time frame set by leaders, Cummings said he believes most lawmakers have mastered the details of the package, which have been discussed at length in caucuses, and some aired in past sessions.

“In terms of the politics, those discussions have to begin today,” said Cummings, adding, “I don’t see any purpose in a delay.”

Republicans, however, continue to have many questions about the legislation, said House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford. How soon those questions can be answered will determine whether the bill can be enacted within the quick time frame set by leaders, he said.

More than 30 amendments had been submitted by late Tuesday afternoon. Among the sticking points were whether the proposed ramp-up in state aid to public schools to 55 percent should take place over four years, as Democratic Gov. John Baldacci proposes, or two years.

Democrats also feared a move to weaken Baldacci’s universal health care-access program, Dirigo Health, to free up money for school funding expansion, said Cummings.

The property tax relief bill became an immediate priority when the Legislature was sworn in Dec. 1, following a string of referendums initiated by voters as a way to control sharp increases in property taxes. Other citizen initiatives addressing the issue are pending.

A bipartisan committee that reviewed Baldacci’s tax relief bill during the past month wrapped up its work Friday.


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