‘Unacceptable’: Lawmakers slam budget plan to send checks to higher-income Mainers

In a vote just after midnight Friday morning, the legislature’s budget committee raised the income threshold for one-time checks the state plans to send to Mainers. It’s a move that some lawmakers say would provide money to those who don’t necessarily need it at the expense of underfunded social programs that could be supported by Maine’s historic surplus.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee vote was to approve the state’s supplementary budget, sending it to the full legislature for consideration. The committee’s decision was unanimous in most areas of the budget, including the vote increasing the income threshold on checks.

According to the committee’s plan, checks for $850 would be sent single filers earning up to $100,000, heads of households earning up to $150,000, and couples filing jointly earning up to $200,000. This represents an increase in the income eligibility threshold for checks from what was proposed by Governor Janet Mills in her budget plan. Mills last month spear $850 checks for single filers earning less than $75,000, although the governor has also proposed a $150,000 threshold for heads of households.

Progressives were already suspicious of Mills’ initial spending plan and had demanded that the checks be more target to ensure that they are sent to those who really need them. These lawmakers and advocates pointed out that targeting spot checks would allow for more state history Surplus of $1.3 billion to spend on long underfunded programs in infrastructure, affordable housing, health care and child care. However, Mills, a Democrat, has indicated she wants Republican support for the budget and will seek to pass the spending plan by a two-thirds margin, rather than a simple majority, limiting progressive spending priorities that may to be included in the budget. .

Increased income threshold for “untenable” checks

After Friday’s AFA vote, some lawmakers expressed renewed frustration that controls had been expanded to include the wealthiest people.

“I’m very disappointed with the thresholds for the $850 checks,” said Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland), chairman of the tax committee. “In what has been proposed, the thresholds are far too high for something I would want to support. I feel like a married couple making $200,000 a year doesn’t need $1,700 from the state of Maine.

The budget published by the AFA offers to spend a total of $729 million on one-time checks, which would be paid out to approximately 857,000 filers. Mills had in mid-March proposed expenses $682 million on the checks, which means the AFA has increased that amount by over $40 million. Checks, an idea first proposed by Republicans, are not favored by Mainers as the best way to use the surplus, according to a recent survey which revealed that people would prefer to use the money to invest in housing, infrastructure and other unmet needs.

“We are told year after year, we don’t have enough money for this, we don’t have enough money for that… We finally got a surplus and enough money to make investments, and we’re making investments in this budget, but we’re not making enough investments in my opinion,” Chipman said, adding that more money is needed for affordable housing in particular.

Chipman praised aspects of the budget plan, saying money for property tax relief, the earned income tax credit and mental health services are all great uses of state funds.

However, he added that he was frustrated to see only $12 million for the Special Appropriations table, which is used to fund bills that cost the state money and are not included in the budget. . Chipman noted that many bills passed by the legislature are awaiting funding. But the total money needed for those bills far exceeds the $12 million allocated to the appropriations table, he said. Some bills pending funding include a measure to create a new state housing vouchersan invoice to direct income from the real estate transfer tax to the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund to build affordable housing, and legislation to ensuring racial equity is taken into account in the collection and evaluation of data.

Other progressive lawmakers have also criticized the AFA’s plan, arguing that setting aside so much money for one-time checks for high-income earners is the wrong move.

“The fact that there is such a desperate need for housing and health care and recovery services and all these underfunded programs in the state and that we are looking at giving $850 checks to people who are earning…six figures a year is untenable,” Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland). “I will not vote for that.

Rep. Victoria Morales (D-South Portland) added, “It is wrong to not focus on the people in our state who we know lack housing, food, health care, income to support themselves. to the needs of their families. ”

“I think our focus right now with this surplus has to be to support those families,” Morales said, citing the one-time nature of the money available to Maine.

Morales also noted that just yesterday she received an email from a mother of eight who was being kicked out. Given the lack of affordable housing in Maine, Morales said finding housing for the family would be extremely difficult. Such stories, she said, make it even more crucial that surplus funds are used to help needy families and not wealthy people who are not struggling.

Other Elements of the AFA Budget Plan

In addition to controls, other aspects of AFA supplementary budget The plan includes an additional $60 million to address PFAS chemical contamination, bringing the state’s investment in this area to more than $100 million. Other items include an expansion of the children’s health insurance program, reform of damaging changes to pension funds made under former Governor Paul LePage, $20 million for to pay for up to two years of community college for some students, $27 million for a free school meals program, money to ensure the state meets its obligation to fund 55% of local education costs, and investments in health and direct care programs, among others provisions.

“Families, communities and small businesses in Maine are looking to the Legislature to fight inflation and rising energy costs, environmental threats and other challenges,” said the Senate Speaker of AFA, Cathy Breen (D-Cumberland). “With this supplementary budget, the Legislature’s Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee has crafted a strong, accountable, bipartisan plan that lives up to our state.”

In her statement, AFA House Speaker Teresa Pierce (D-Falmouth) said, “I am proud that our committee was able to come up with a unanimous, bipartisan report on the Supplementary Estimates. Our shared goal was to ensure that direct relief quickly reached the people of Maine and that critical investments were made in Maine families to thrive.

Some supporters also hailed the budget plan. In an email, Maine Center for Economic Policy Chairman Garrett Martin welcomed the expansion of the earned income tax credit and the property tax relief provisions in particular. Martin added that as part of the budget plan, 7,500 more children will now have access to health insurance, child care workers will receive better wages and schools will receive the funding they deserve.

“A fair state budget is essential to uplifting the people and communities of Maine,” Martin said. “We commend the Mills administration and the AFA committee for their work to increase family incomes, expand access to health care, increase access to education, and fulfill the commitment of the state to fund our local schools and services.”

The proposed budget, however, also maintains the state’s “rainy day fund” at $492 million, the highest in Maine history, according to a legislative press release. It comes as advocates have argued the state needs to spend funds on programs to help Mainers recover from the devastating health and financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rather than keep such a high amount in the fund of bad days.

Dan Neumann contributed reporting for this story.

Photo: Members of the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) at the State House on Thursday to urge lawmakers to support a fair budget | Through the People’s Alliance of Maine

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