AUGUSTA — The Maine Legislature gave sweeping approval Wednesday to state budget changes proposed by Gov. Janet Mills that will funnel $900 million in unanticipated revenue into education, revenue sharing for cities and towns, and direct payments of up to $300 for Mainers who worked through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The strong bipartisan vote will increase the state’s next two-year budget to $8.77 billion, a nearly 10 percent increase over the $7.98 billion biennial budget passed in 2019. The new budget goes into effect Thursday. The vote came as Maine’s civil state of emergency, in place since March 15, 2020, was set to expire at midnight.

In addition to the $300 payments to workers, the budget bill sends $187 million more dollars to Maine’s public schools, meeting for the first time the state’s obligation to cover 55 percent of the cost of K-12 public education, as mandated by a statewide ballot question in 2004. The bill, which passed the House 123-23 and the Senate 32-2, easily reached the two-thirds majority that allows legislation to become law immediately upon the governor’s signature.

The measure also increases the amount of tax revenue the state shares with cities and towns from 3.75 percent to 5 percent by the end of 2023. That more than $80 million boost is meant to help municipalities reduce local property taxes.

“We all know there is great stuff in this that some of us love and some stuff in it that some of us don’t like,” said Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the Senate chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. The committee gave its unanimous approval to the bill on Sunday.

Sen. Paul Davis, the Republican Senate lead on the committee, also praised the bill. He said some had criticized the $300 payment for being too low.

“To some, it is not a lot of money, $300,” Davis said. “But I can take you to some places in Piscataquis County where it is a lot of money.” Davis said the money would likely get out in time for Christmas and that would make a difference for a lot of families this year.

Davis said the revenue sharing money in the budget to reduce property taxes would only work if lawmakers and voters now pressured local officials to use the new funding for that purpose. “Harass your local people a little bit,” Davis told his colleagues. “Make them pass it on to the taxpayers.”

Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, the House chair of the budget committee said the bill kept the Legislature’s promises on property tax relief by expanding benefits under a state property tax fairness program that serves 80,000 low-income renters and homeowners. Pierce said the budget also invests in conserving and enhancing the state’s natural resources and public lands with $40 million earmarked for the Land for Maine’s Future Program and funding to clean up “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, from Maine farmlands.

“The health of Maine people is a critical priority to this body,” Pierce said, “and we have included funds to close the gap in Mainers’ health care and access to long-term care.” She noted that the budget expands the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, to provide non-emergency dental care to 217,000 eligible Mainers.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a lead House Republican on the committee, called the compromise, “a major accomplishment.” He said the legislation was a far cry from the underlying two-year budget that was passed by a majority vote of Democrats back in March.

“I lot of us, I think, assumed that maybe things were in bad shape and we were not going to be – on my side of the aisle – involved in this supplemental portion,” Millett said. “To actually to put together a budget that achieves as much as this one does and have a unanimous report I think is no small accomplishment.”

Mills, who on Tuesday signaled her strong support for the deal, was expected to sign the measure quickly into law.

The $300 “hazard payment” to Mainers who worked through the pandemic would be available to full-time residents who filed state income tax returns for 2020 and who earned a federally adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 as an individual, less than $112,000 as a head of household or less than $150,000 for those filing jointly.

With strong Republican support, lawmakers Wednesday also sustained several of Mills’ recent vetoes, including a bill that would have led to the closure of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the state’s only jail for juvenile offenders. The bill would have required the Maine Department of Corrections to develop a plan to close Long Creek by 2023. In her veto message Mills said the bill was “fundamentally flawed” and “a simplistic solution to a complex problem” because it would close Maine’s only youth detention facility before alternative sites are available.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said she committed herself to closing Long Creek after visiting the South Portland youth detention facility and being overcome with emotion at what she witnessed. Warren, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, pointed out that Maine is currently paying roughly $600,000 per year for every child who is being held at Long Creek.

Warren said that Mills’ veto message, which outlined her reasons for rejecting the bill, did not adequately address the needs of children who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

“That’s what we need to do – we need to figure out a way to help the children who have been failed, and that means having a plan to eventually close Long Creek,” Warren said. “We wanted that plan within three years because we all knows how things go around here.”

But bill opponents pointed out that the Maine Department of Corrections is working on a series of juvenile justice reforms that will eventually make Long Creek unnecessary. And they echoed concerns raised by Mills in her veto message that the bill could require the closure of Long Creek before alternative sites are available to house young people.

“No one likes to see young people incarcerated, but there are young people that need to be incarcerated,” said Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, a retired police chief. “That’s just a fact of life.”


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