Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Maine Republicans Push for Legislative Spending Curbs

By Glenn Adams
Associated Press | December 5, 2006

AUGUSTA - Minority Republicans said Tuesday they'll push for legislative spending curbs after the new House and Senate take office, but a debate is not likely to flare up until January when lawmakers return to the State House after a monthlong break.

Without taking a formal vote, Republicans expressed support for a joint House-Senate rule that would require a two-thirds vote to pass any measure that violates existing spending limits, creates an unfunded liability for a retirement benefit or creates an obligation that depends on taxes to be raised by future legislatures.

The idea of setting new requirements for overriding spending limits surfaced in October when the Maine State Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to a referendum proposal that called for state and local government spending restrictions. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights did not pass.

Sen. Peter Mills proposed the joint rule as House and Senate Republicans gathered on the eve of Wednesday's formal opening of the 2007-08 legislative session. Soon after lawmakers take their oaths, they must adopt rules to guide their actions for the next two years.

While expressing conceptual support for including spending curbs in the House-Senate rules, the Republicans indicated no interest in igniting a debate on the opening day of the session, a day given largely to formalities, photo shoots and upbeat speeches.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Weston, R-Montville, noted that legislatures traditionally do not open their joint rules to amendments and debate on the opening day. Mills, R-Cornville, said lawmakers would have until the third week in January to make any changes.

But he and other supporters urged the Republicans not to let their enthusiasm cool off during the break between Wednesday and January when lawmakers return.

"I think you will see some significant public pressure brought to hear," said Mills. Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, warned that failure to pass such restraints "will create a tremendous amount of skepticism among the public," especially as pressure mounts for added spending curbs at state and local levels of government.

A Democratic leader, without dismissing the idea outright, expressed little support for the proposed rule, which she said should be weighed by the Rules Committee.

"It's something the Republicans have been talking about for a couple of years," said new House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. "I don't think our caucus is inclined to support it."

The proposal surfaces a month after Maine voters considered the Taxpayer Bill of Rights proposal, known as TABOR, to restrict government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth, with voter approval needed for all tax and fee increases.

The measure was defeated 54 percent to 46 percent, but members of both parties say the vote still shows significant public support for tax reform.

"The people of Maine have given us a message about property tax relief," said Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. He said a top priority now is to pass a constitutional amendment to freeze local property assessments for year-round primary homes to their present rates for tax purposes until the time of sale.

While taking no position on the Republicans' proposed joint rule, Baldacci said it could become a component of a larger tax relief effort.