AUGUSTA – When Rep. Sonya Sampson, D-Auburn, voted for the state budget in March, she did so while loudly saying, “I’m holding my nose.”

Sampson and others were unhappy about borrowing millions for ongoing expenses. “It’s like borrowing to pay for groceries. … It just seemed ludicrous.”

When Sampson voted on the amended budget late Friday, it was easier for her to say yes, she said. She stood on the House floor and thanked members for rewriting the package without the borrowing. “It feels like we got a monkey off our back,” she said Saturday.

To get rid of the borrowing, the $5.7 billion state budget amendment raised $125 million mostly by doubling cigarette taxes from $1 to $2 a pack, and cut a total of $125 million from virtually all areas. It narrowly passed in the House and Senate, and Gov. John Baldacci has said he will sign it.

Sampson said Saturday she doesn’t like raising taxes, and is concerned that doubling the state levy on cigarettes that will hurt low-income smokers. She would have preferred to raise the sales tax by 1 cent. “I have small stores in my area and know how the cigarette tax will be noxious to a lot of people.”

But the budget “is the best we can do,” Sampson said.

Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, agreed. Craven serves on the Appropriations Committee that crafted the budget.

There was plenty of drama in the House chamber as the budget was debated Friday. Not just in the speeches, but also in the nervousness behind the scenes as the votes and people were counted.

In the first of a series of votes, the tally was 73 for, 72 against, with members of both parties missing.

With 76 Democrats and 73 Republicans in the House, and with a few Democrats voting or considering voting against the budget for a variety of reasons, “It could have gone either way,” Craven said. “We were worried.”

For example, Rep. Elaine Makas, D-Lewiston, was struggling with higher cigarette taxes. Rep. Charles Crosby, D-Topsham, opposed the budget in an early vote, objecting to cuts in the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, Craven said.

After discussions “that this was the best we could do,” according to Craven, both Makas and Crosby voted yes in the end. Nevertheless, the night was “excruciating” for Craven, who was so stressed she broke out in a rash. After she voted, she scurried around the third floor looking for members who weren’t in their seats.

“I was thinking if this budget does not pass, what are we going to tell our constituents? What are people going to think of us if we can’t make a decision,” she recalled Saturday. When the final 74-72 vote was cast in the House around 11 p.m., “I was so relieved,” Craven said.

But Rep. Randy Hotham, R-Dixfield, wasn’t.

Despite the first House vote that only had a one-vote differential, “I didn’t get the feeling there was enough folks from the other side who would bolt and vote with Republicans,” Hotham said. “I didn’t anticipate we had a shot.”

Hotham credits his hunch to “a lot of conditioning.” Republicans haven’t been able to get things to go their way except for a few times since January, he said.

Like other Republicans, he said the state budget that now has no borrowing “is so much better. … We have taken a step in the right direction.”

But cuts should have been deeper, he said. He’s skeptical that the higher cigarette tax will raise as much as Democrats are booking. “The projections are way too high.” He predicted the entire $125 million will not be raised from the cigarette tax, and the budget next year “will be out of balance.”

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