Is the Legislature’s Powerful “Table of Appropriations” Bad for Maine’s Law-Making?

Despite gaining the support of committees or even plenary chambers, many bills in each session never make it off the “special appropriations table,” where those with tax marks land before receiving funding from the Maine Legislature Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee.

While it’s unclear what the committee will do with the 146 bills currently on the table, it’s certain that many — likely most — will go unfunded this year. Governor Janet Mills has allocated just $12 million for lawmakers to do as they please in her budget proposal, which was unveiled during her state of the state address.

Together, the general fund expenditures listed in the special table total approximately $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2021-22 alone.

The process works like this: If a bill in the Maine Legislature has a price tag or tax note, it will usually be placed on the Special Appropriations table, often referred to as “the table.” From there, the 13-member appropriations committee votes to determine if the bill is worth funding or if enough money is available. In committee, “the bills are adopted as they are, amended to change the cost or outright killed”, according to an explainer of the table published by the State.

Although this is a long-standing practice in the Maine Legislative Assembly, some members openly question why a small group wields such power.

Critics also say the table can shield lawmakers from tough votes. They could favor something in another committee or in the House or the Senate knowing that it will never be funded anyway, and that it is practically dead when it comes to the appropriations committee.

“When you stop to think about it, it’s a highly undemocratic function of government in Maine,” said Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship). “At the end of the day, 13 people decide, and that often overrides what democratic legislative bodies have already approved.”

A bill sponsored by Evangelos that would change the post-conviction review of criminal cases is currently on the table.

Essentially, even if a bill is supported by a legislative majority, it can be overturned by a committee of just 13 lawmakers. Many decisions are negotiated within the committee, leaving other legislators little opportunity to alter decisions.

Concerns about the special table and the power of the committee exist in the political aisle. Democrats and Republicans have bills that sit on the table forever.

Even cheap bills can be blocked

For example, a bipartisan bill allowing independent voters to vote in the primary election, which was sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin (D-Lincoln) and co-sponsored by Sen. Matthew Pouliot (R-Kennebec) and others, does in the face of future uncertainty. Although it was postponed to the current session, it is unclear whether the bill will be funded.

The bill’s tax note was not particularly onerous under state funding. It required one-time funding of $200,932 in 2023-24 so that the office of the Secretary of State could afford more postage and voting costs.

“The appropriations committee is definitely — obviously — the most powerful committee in the legislature, Pouliot, the deputy Senate minority leader, said in an interview with The Maine Monitor last week.

Pouliot often warns new MPs that just because their bill passed committee or received the support of the House does not mean it will become law.

“I’ve spoken with new lawmakers (and said) ‘Hey, you know, just because your bill passed doesn’t mean it actually passed,'” he said. he declares. “At the end of the day, the appropriations committee is the final arbiter of most laws, unless they don’t have a tax note.”

Pouliot said sometimes the tax notes don’t seem entirely accurate, although he can’t prove they were wrong.

“Some of the tax notes are fake, you know,” he said. “They put tax notes on it, I feel like, sometimes just so you have to go to credits to get killed.”

To ensure that a bill that requires new spending will go through the process and receive funding, Pouliot said it’s best to include the bills in the governor’s budget proposal beforehand.

“One of the things that I certainly didn’t realize when I came into the legislature, and it probably took me several times to really get the point, (is) that if your bill costs money, and it’s not in the governor’s budget, yeah, pretty much forget it,” he said.

According to the Senate’s March 9 calendar, the table of appropriations has 146 bills, with various causes, monetary demands and purposes, awaiting a decision from the committee.

For example, one bill would establish continued absentee voting, another would help provide access to emergency shelter for homeless people. A few bills involve tax credits, some involve various aspects of health care. Some laws require long-term funding, others require one-time allocations.

Some of the total $1.3 billion cost may already be in Mills’ proposed budget, so lawmakers won’t have to cut everything. But many bills will not be funded. The bills on the special table also exceed $400 million in general fund spending for future fiscal years.

Ultimately, the state doesn’t have the money to pay all the bills on the table. When lawmakers reach a budget deal, some items will receive funding and others will be cut.

Protect legislators

Ethan Strimling, a former Portland mayor who served three terms as a state senator, said the table is something “you don’t really understand until you’ve been on it for a little while.” .

“It’s unfortunate because it basically gives everyone the ability to vote for things and pretend they support it,” Strimling said. “But in the end, it never happens because the credit committee doesn’t put money behind it.”

Strimling said he understands the need for the appropriations committee to review expenditures, but in doing so the committee should have “much more deference to the legislature and the priorities that the legislature has adopted.” Requests for comment from the committee co-chairs (Senator Cathy Breen, D-Cumberland, and Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth) were not returned.

This session, Strimling argues that instead of accepting a Mills proposal that would use part of the current $822 million surplus to give $750 checks to Mainers, the appropriations should instead fund legislative proposals that , otherwise, would die on the table. Strimling said that as long as it was budgeted appropriately, the surplus could fund long-term projects.

“Spread that billion dollars over five years and fund really important programs,” he said. “After five years you have a pretty good idea of ​​how effective they are and whether they should continue.”

Often there are bills with millions of dollars attached that never get off the table and through committee, said Jacob Posik, director of communications at the Maine Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank that advocates freedom. individual, free markets and “economic freedom.”

“Most often it comes down to a game of haggling at the end of the legislative session,” Posik said. That will almost certainly be the case this session as well.

“It rarely feels like the bills that would be most helpful or influential to the Mainers are the ones that end up being funded through special endorsements,” Posik said. “More often than not, I’d say these are the leaders’ pet projects or concessions to the minority party in order to get them to vote for the full budget.”