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Maine Democrats reverse controversial spending items

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(The Center Square) — Maine’s Democratic legislative leaders have walked back controversial changes to a supplemental spending bill made during a late-night committee meeting.

On Monday, the Legislature’s Democrat-led budget committee approved a proposed spending plan that reversed some changes it made during a recent session that rankled Republicans and prompted threats of a veto by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. The measure is expected to be considered by the Legislature on Wednesday, its final day of the session.

The reversal comes after the Legislature’s Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs last week approved several changes to the spending plan introduced only minutes before the panel approved them in a party-line vote after rejecting Republican objections.

Those changes included cutting Maine’s state pension deductions, earmarking $14 million for the state’s emergency housing relief fund, and reducing a proposed increase to the dairy stabilization fund from 25% to only 10%, which drew prompt criticism from farmers.

But legislative leaders walked back the proposed changes following the backlash and pushed the spending bill through the budget committee during Monday’s meeting.

“Despite earlier, good-faith efforts to develop a budget that could earn consensus support, we recognized that we needed to take another look and reconsider our approach,” Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross said in a statement. “Over the past week, we have done just that — and today the committee voted out a budget that delivers for Mainers and deserves broad based support.”

Republicans blasted the Democratic-controlled panel and vowed to call for a vote on an alternative spending plan when the House and Senate convene to take up the Democratic-proposed measure.

“A little more than a week ago, this was a good idea, and now it’s not,” state Rep. Jack Ducharme, R-Madison, said in remarks during Monday’s committee meeting. “And I don’t understand why the other day at 3 o’clock in the morning it was a good idea, and now it isn’t. If someone could explain that for me, then I would appreciate it.”

House Minority Leader Billy “Bob” Faulkingham had called for the removal of the appropriations committee chairwoman, Democratic Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, accusing her of abusing her authority and creating a “toxic and hostile” work environment for GOP members of the panel.

The last-minute changes also drew a sharp rebuke from Mills, who objected to rolling back tax relief for pensioners, slashing state aid to dairy farms and “raiding” the state’s highway fund.

Mills urged fellow Democrats to “reconsider these ill-advised changes” and “advance a fiscally responsible budget that is sustainable in the long term.”

A Mills spokesman said the governor won’t veto the new spending plan but remains concerned about the ability of the state to meet its financial commitments in the short- and long-term.

“The governor does remain concerned about added spending beyond what she proposed in her change package — spending that, as much as she agrees with it from a policy perspective, may not be fiscally sustainable in the long term,” Mills spokesman Scott Ogden said in a statement.

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