AUGUSTA – To help seal a plan to tide over state government through June, Rep. Janet Mills took her committee colleagues shopping.

Wanted? One forklift.

Mills, who made her name as a longtime district attorney in western Maine before entering the House of Representatives two years ago, brought a little bit of town meeting to the Appropriations Committee deliberations as the panel made its final review of an $89 million supplemental budget bill submitted by Gov. John Baldacci.

Sparking the interest of the Farmington Democrat was a $32,000 item.

“Well,” she recounted with relish, “my ears pricked when I heard the Department of Agriculture seeking a $32,000 quote, quote emergency request’ for a brand new forklift.

“Now, nothing wrong with the forklift they’ve got. They’ve been renting to the tune of $4,800 a year. They’ve been renting a forklift.”

The department proposal was included in a measure to cover unanticipated needs across state government. Mills decided to look into the matter herself.

“So I asked the commissioner at the hearing whether or not they had checked into state surplus for any other sources of secondhand equipment. The answer appeared to be no,” Mills recalled.

In her telling, worthy of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” the saga of a relatively tiny piece in a 41-page bill took on symbolic importance far exceeding its dollars-and-cents value.

“It’s the principle of the thing as much as it is the money,” Mills said.

When the Agriculture Department’s presentation concluded, the appropriations panel turned to pleas from other state agencies. Mills never dropped a stitch.

“There were several other department heads who came in seeking more money for other supplemental budget requests,” she said. “And in every case I asked them: Have you got a forklift?”‘

Nothing satisfactory came of that approach and Mills turned to the virtual marketplace.

“I got on the Internet” browsing through surplus government property. “It’s like Uncle Henry’s online, you know, for state government. And I came across a forklift. I was very excited, needless to say.”

That was just the beginning.

“Then I came across another forklift,” Mills said with evident pleasure. “I was even more excited.”

The hunt wasn’t done.

“Well imagine my surprise when I came across, lo and behold, a third forklift on the same Web site. So I printed the photos, downloaded and printed out the photos, for the rest of the committee to peruse.”

Satisfaction guaranteed.

Mills said her personal favorite was a mint condition number for $6,000, but she also found a diesel model that might need repair for $4,500 and another available for $3,500 or best offer.

The appropriations panel agreed unanimously to offer the Agriculture Department $1,200 that could be combined with $4,800 set aide for a rental, along with a little extra for required repairs.

Crediting Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, Mills said there was also talk of allowing the department to “buy all three at a bargain, negotiate for a good price and have two parts vehicles.”

The budgetary gambit left $30,800 for Maine’s Senior Farm Share program, which provides fresh produce in season to low-income senior citizens.

The supplemental budget bill heads to the full Legislature this week. Arousing little controversy, it is likely to serve as a dress rehearsal for a two-year budget package still in committee, crafted to allocate $5.7 billion for fiscal years 2006 and 2007.

The bigger measure already has lawmakers taking sides and Mills says she wants to take nothing for granted on the smaller bill coming up first.

“I don’t want the budget unraveling because somebody doesn’t like what I did with forklifts,” Mills said. “I mean, you know how the budget thing goes on the floor. Somebody can get mad about a can of toothpaste. … I’ll have to defend myself.”

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