So, something weird happened around 6 p.m. Monday.
Democrats on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee voted to approve a bill to restore a $40 million reduction in municipal revenue sharing in the state budget. Absent from the process, though, were any Republican members of the committee.
The reason for that is … hairy, to say the least. Democrats say their GOP counterparts “walked out” on negotiations Monday after it became clear that a vote would be held. Republican committee members say they left the building planning to vote on Tuesday.
Committee members who had left the building will have until noon Wednesday to cast their votes on the bill, per legislative rules. But that didn’t stem the outrage expressed by GOP appropriators in a press release, which said the Republican budget writers were notified by staff of the vote while they were on their way home from Augusta.
“I am absolutely stunned by this brazen move by the Democrats,” said Lead House Republican appropriator Rep. Kathy Chase, R-Wells, in the release. “I left the State House with the understanding that we would not vote on the measure until tomorrow afternoon.”
While Republican lawmakers were absent, party leaders and staffers were in the Appropriations Committee chamber during the vote. David Sorensen, communications director for House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, said staff learned of the impending vote from a reporter.
The bill approved by Democrats would take $21 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $4 million from another account designed to slowly accumulate budget surplus until enough was on hand to fund a reduction in the state income tax. The remainder of the $40 million will be funded by surplus predicted in recently revised revenue forecasts, according to Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, who sponsored the bill.
Gone from the proposal are any efforts aimed at tax-break reform. Myriad recommendations from a special task force on tax expenditures were originally proposed to fund a restoration of revenue sharing, but lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee scrapped them.
The proposal could go to the House of Representatives on Thursday.
The current two-year budget already reduces revenue sharing by more than $30 million, from about $96 million in 2013 to about $65 million the first year; if the $40 million hole isn’t filled, that will fall to about $20 million in the second year. Put another way, that would be a 79 percent decline in state funding for municipal services in just two years.
Appropriations committee members have been negotiating the issue behind closed doors for a few weeks now. Late in January, they held a long public hearing, during which municipal officials said further cuts to revenue sharing would be devastating for Maine’s towns and cities.
Revenue sharing is the second-largest source of state cash for municipalities, after funding for education, and is a crucial part of local budgets, which cover everything from police and fire departments to parks and recreation. Municipal officials say further cuts would have to be made up for with increased property taxes.
Hill said the vote shows that Democrats are serious about their support for Maine’s municipalities.
“Restoring these funds will ensure our towns don’t have to raise property taxes or further reduce essential services like public safety or education, or do both,” Hill said in a press release.
I’m sure this story will continue to develop Tuesday, and the episode could even make its way into Gov. Paul LePage’s State of the State Address scheduled for tomorrow evening.