Focus shifts to Maine budget as adjournment nears

Focus shifts to Maine $6.3B budget as June 19 adjournment nears

Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Lawmakers working to finish Maine's two-year, $6.3 billion budget before the legislative session ends June 19 remained far apart Wednesday on key areas, especially taxes, but signaled some movement toward an agreement.

Leaders expressed confidence the Appropriations Committee, where the brokering is centered, can get the job done.

"We must pass this budget. And so I look forward to very good conversations with our Republican leaders and making sure we support our members on Appropriations every step of the way toward the finish line," said Senate President Justin Alfond, a Portland Democrat.

Among the most contentious provisions is Republican Gov. Paul LePage's proposed suspension of revenue sharing, which has drawn harsh criticism from municipalities and Democrats as a tax shift to property taxpayers.

But in a show of movement on the budget, Democrats backed away from their insistence that income tax cuts pushed through by Republicans in 2011 be suspended. A separate proposal to raise the state's 5-cent sales tax by a penny, which was suggested as an option to raise needed revenues, drew quick support from the Maine Education Association. The teachers' union believes the increase should expire when the economy improves.

The Appropriations Committee also discussed a $1.50 increase in cigarette taxes, which are now $2 per pack. The increase would generate $96 million alone over two years. Also mention was increasing the state's meals and lodging tax.

At least some GOP lawmakers are pushing for higher levies on large nonprofits in the state, although they reiterated their stand against broad-based tax hikes during a Wednesday news conference.

"Maine's cupboard is bare, folks," said Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley, who appeared with a group of other Republicans who's been monitoring budget issues. "This is no time to raise taxes."

Sen. David Burns said the emphasis must remain on spending, not revenues.

"We all agree in this group here is that we have done everything we could in our power to keep from raising taxes and we're going to keep to that commitment. That is not what the Maine people deserve, more taxes. What they deserve is smarter government and that's what we're all about here today," said Burns, R-Whiting.

Democrats on Appropriations Committee proposed money-saving moves toward cutting back fraud and increasing efficiencies in general assistance, the welfare program administered by municipalities.

Committee members said Maine has been beset by weak general fund revenues, which are not projected to be any higher in 2015 than they were in 2007, and repeated cuts in federal funds.

"We've been cutting and cutting and cutting. And it's time we stop and consider how we can continue to provide those programs that are so necessary for everyone in our state," Rep. Megan Rochelo, D-Biddeford, told fellow Appropriations members.

The latest proposals changed the tone of State House chatter away from a potential shutdown to hopes that Appropriations will finalize a budget within two days.

"The bipartisan work we're doing in this building is really starting to manifest itself," said Alfond.

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