AUGUSTA – The Democrat-controlled Maine Legislature enacted a $5.7 billion state budget package Wednesday night, sending Gov. John Baldacci a reworked version of his original plan that would borrow $450 million and provide $250 million in additional school aid.

Passage reflected the Democrats’ numerical edge over Republicans in both the Senate, where the final tally was 18-16, and in the House of Representatives, where the approval vote was 77-73.

Along the way during debate that began late Tuesday night and was concluded shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday, the Democratic majorities turned back a series of Republican amendments.

The flash point in the debate throughout was a $450 million revenue bond issue that would not require voter approval.

Supporters said the initiative would allow lawmakers to reduce the state’s unfunded pension liability, build up reserves and avoid sharper curbs on social service programs than those already put forth by Baldacci, a Democrat. Critics blasted the borrowing plan as an imprudent application of one-time funds for ongoing demands for expenditures.

The two Senate Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, Chairwoman Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston and John Martin of Eagle Lake, touted the accomplishment of the panel’s majority in replacing Baldacci’s original plan for selling off future lottery revenue.

Rotundo and Martin also cast partisan differences within the Appropriations Committee as real but limited.

The “budget is stronger for the bipartisan work that we did,” Rotundo told the Senate.

“There are differences … but there aren’t many,” said Martin.

Republicans were by and large unmoved.

“We did some things that made it better,” said Republican Sen. Richard Nass of Acton. But Nass, who also serves on the Appropriations panel, warned against using borrowing merely for “keeping the lights on.”

And Republican Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville zeroed in on Baldacci, charging that Democratic lawmakers were being “led over (the) cliff of bankruptcy by (a) pied piper on the second floor.”

Capping the Senate debate, a proposal by Mills and a bipartisan group of supporters for reducing the borrowing and raising new revenue by temporarily hiking the 5 percent state sales tax by a penny was defeated 25-10.

Legislative leaders had been hoping to have a bill for Baldacci to sign by today.

Early Wednesday morning after four hours of debate, House Democrats won a vote providing all-but-final approval for the budget package, although Republican opposition remained broad.

The preliminary House tally was 77-74.

For two days in both the House and Senate, most of the rhetoric seemed to be geared toward making points rather than changing minds.

On Tuesday night, one Republican amendment that would send the contentious borrowing provision out to referendum fell short by just 76-75. Meanwhile, another Republican proposal to keep state spending at current levels temporarily lost by only 77-74.

Outcomes in the Senate on Wednesday were similar.

The Republicans’ continuing resolution approach, which sponsors said would allow more time for renewed budget deliberations, failed 19-16, as did a bid to give voters a say on borrowing.

To shore up backing for the budget over the last two days, Democrats successfully prepared a floor amendment for attachment that would strike proposed registration fees for canoes and kayaks, ease stricter penalties for seat belt violations and scrap a proposed study that could consider wilderness access fees in Maine.

Ordinarily, enacted bills do not become law until 90 days after a legislative session concludes. Super-majorities of two-thirds in both houses are needed to move up the effective date of a new measure.

Democrats hold enough votes to enact a bill themselves but Republican opposition would be sufficient to deprive the majority party of two-thirds in the House and Senate.

To avoid such a delay and ensure that new budget provisions are in place for the July 1 start of a new fiscal year, Democrats dusted off a previously used scheme to pass budget legislation and then technically adjourn the legislative session.

Adjournment would start the 90-day clock ticking. Meanwhile, the Legislature would be called back into a so-called special session.

AP-ES-03-30-05 2204EST


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