(The Center Square) – Gov. Janet Mills is trying to rally last-minute support for her proposal to spend more than $1 billion of pandemic relief funds, after a key Democratic-led legislative committee narrowly approved the measure along party lines.
On Wednesday, the Legislature's Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs approved a slightly scaled down version of Mills' Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, teeing up the bill for a final vote on Monday in the state House of Representatives and Senate.
But the 8-4 committee vote, which went along party lines with Republicans voting against it, has raised concerns that the measure will fall short of the two-thirds support it needs to pass the Legislature without delaying the process.
Mills issued a statement praising but urging lawmakers for approving the plan but calling for bipartisan support to get it across the finish line.
"If we allow three more months to pass simply because we couldn’t find consensus, then that could mean the difference between a business surviving or failing, between a parent being able to afford child care so they can go back to work or not, between expanding broadband to rural communities or not," Mills said. "The stakes are high. The implications are real."
Democrats, who control a majority of the seats in the House and Senate, could still approve the measure without Republican support but it would delay the process by more than 90 days, and postpone disbursement of the pandemic relief funds. Mills said she wants a bipartisan deal that would make the money available immediately.
“Every day that passes where this bill is not law is one more day that we aren’t putting these transformational investments to work for Maine people," she said.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, accused Democrats of "intentionally sabotaging" weeks of negotiations over the spending proposal.
“After spending more than $11 billion in state and federal money in the last eight months, we have reached the point where enough is enough," he said in a statement. "If the Democrats still have not given money to every pet project they support, they have a serious problem with their spending addiction. You really can reach a point where you have to just say 'stop.'"
Maine expects to get more than $1.1 billion in federal funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief package signed by President Joe Biden in March.
Mills outlined plans to spend the money in her Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, which was submitted to the Legislature last week, which includes about $50 million for fixing roads, bridges and transportation systems.
She's also proposed borrowing $140 million and leveraging that with federal relief dollars to meet transportation and other needs.
But Democrats reduced the size of Mill's proposal to $983 million and added other spending items GOP lawmakers say they won't support.
Republican lawmakers have been feuding with Mills and Democratic leaders since March when they pushed through a two-year, $8.4 billion budget without a single GOP vote.
Democrats employed a seldom used legislative maneuver to approve the biennial budget with a simple majority vote, bypassing the normally required two-thirds vote to pass it.
The budget ultimately passed with Republican support, and GOP lawmakers said they had reached agreement with Democrats on many of the items in Mill's relief package bill and were upset that Democrats had decided to change the plan.
Sen. Paul Davis, the lead Republican on the appropriations committee, said Democrats have "pulled the rug out from under the process" at the last minute.
"We finalized the budget at our last meeting," he said. "To try to crack it back open now in order to pass a few partisan bills and appease a handful of special interests is wrong and does not benefit the people of Maine."