Gov. Janet Mills took another conservative budgetary stance relative to many other Democrats this week, advocating for putting $20 million into Maine’s rainy day fund in a change package to her two-year budget proposal.
It comes as the two parties try to hash out a consensus budget. Much of the low-lying work has been done on it, but leading Democrats in the Legislature are still talking about fully funding education and aid to cities and towns, though it’s unclear where they’ll find the money to do that.
Like most governors, Mills is trying to dictate the budget process, but she is doing it differently than her predecessor. The governor’s $8 billion budget proposal increased by more than $2.8 million after the change package that was rolled out on Monday. When her first budget proposal was unveiled in February, it immediately faced skepticism from Republicans who think the overall figure is too high. Some Democrats felt hamstrung by Mills’ pledge to not raise taxes.
Her budget provided for a $126 million boost in K-12 education funding, but that’s still $200 million short of a never-met, voter-mandated threshold of 55 percent of essential costs. She would also increase the share of tax revenue shared to cities and towns from 2 percent to 3 percent, short of a statutory threshold of 5 percent.
Mills’ budget proposed spending all but $383,000 of the money expected to be generated over the two-year cycle. It signaled to Democrats that she was ready to spend money available to her, but not make more money available. In her party, that’s a reasonably conservative stance.
After an estimate released this month projected $87 million more in revenue by the end of the next two-year budget cycle, her change package proposed putting $20 million more into the rainy day fund while hiring 62 new staffers in the state’s embattled child welfare system, staffing a new mental health unit in Bangor and setting aside money to fight the state’s opioid crisis.
It led to faint praise from the political organization of former Gov. Paul LePage, which tweeted that Mills “recognized our call to stop raiding the savings in the Rainy Day fund.” However, the conservative Maine People Before Politics warned the budget could turn if the economy falters.
This is the part of the legislative session where LePage, a Republican, was often well removed from budget negotiations after rolling out proposals that were unlikely to fly. Mills is still deeply involved and holding heavy sway over the final outcome.
The parties haven’t come off initial stances on the budget, with a leading Democrat calling for more education funding and local aid on Tuesday. Much of the routine budget work has been effectively finished by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, but there is still a game of chicken going on around the top-line demands. A coalition of liberal groups including the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Maine People’s Alliance want a tax hike on higher earners to free up more revenue. They will need that if schools or revenue sharing are going to be fully funded.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, a co-chair of the budget committee, mentioned them in a colloquy with members on Tuesday, saying he has “heard a lot” about “the need to provide property tax relief” from fellow Democrats and people in his community.
But it’s going to be difficult for majority Democrats to get that in a consensus process amid Mills’ self-described “cautious” approach and a Republican aversion to tax increases and the level of spending already in the governor’s proposal. The panel is aiming to resolve many of these issues by month’s end.
Today in A-town
The House or Senate don’t resume floor sessions until tomorrow, so it’s a work-heavy day for most legislative committees. Most committees will meet today to consider bills bolstering workforce development, allowing municipal and consumer control over utilities, and expanding Mainers’ access to health insurance.
A bill from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, ready for votes this morning in the energy and utilities committee, would bar the Public Utilities Commission from granting permits for any high-impact transmission line project unless all affected municipalities have decided, through individual referendum, that they want the project, and the PUC deems the project will provide “significant tangible public benefits.” The bill from Berry, committee co-chair and opponent of the proposed Central Maine Power corridor through western Maine, would also place a moratorium on the state’s issuance of any permit or certificate of approval for a project until 90 days after the second legislative session adjournment, in order to allow the Department of Environmental Protection time to adopt the bill rules. Listen here.
The health coverage committee will hold public hearings on nine proposals from Democrats this afternoon. Among them are calls to create a public health insurance option, assist small businesses in providing coverage to employees, and support universal health care and a single-payer system. Listen here.
A variety of workforce development bills will be considered by the labor and innovation and economic development committees, including one from Rep. Kristen Cloutier, D-Lewiston, to facilitate immigrants’ transition into Maine’s workforce by setting up a loan program that provides interest-free loans for “work-readiness” assistance for foreign-educated or trained immigrants with work permits awaiting federal employment authorization, according to the bill language. Listen here.
— A senator changed his vote, putting Maine on track to pass one of the strictest school vaccination laws in the country. On Tuesday, Sen. Jim Dill, D-Old Town, reversed an earlier vote in favor of a religious exemption to help Senate Democrats endorse a bill that would eliminate all non-medical immunization exemptions for children attending Maine public schools. Dill’s switch aligned the Senate version of the bill with what the House of Representatives had passed. Three Senate Democrats joined all of the chamber’s Republicans in supporting an amendment that would allow religious exemptions. Opposition to the bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, has been fierce and came largely from conservatives who made personal and religious freedom arguments as well as others who had other concerns about vaccines, including a debunked link between vaccines and autism. But Mills’ administration supports it and, after further procedural votes in the Legislature, she will have an opportunity to sign it. The new restrictions would take effect in 2021.
— A long prohibition on the use of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions in Maine appears about to end. The Senate on Tuesday endorsed a bill from Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, that would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to cover the cost of abortions for eligible recipients of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. It would also require private insurance carriers already providing prenatal coverage to ensure coverage for abortion care. The House also passed the bill despite largely Republican opposition, and Mills’ administration supports it.
— Democrats are putting Maine on course to join a plan that would change how U.S. presidents are elected. The Senate voted 19-16 on Tuesday for a bill from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would have Maine join 15 other jurisdictions in an interstate compact aimed at electing presidents by popular vote. It would only take effect if states with enough electors to decide a presidential election adopt it. The jurisdictions that have adopted it now account for 189 electors, which is 70 percent of the 270 votes needed to create a majority of the 538 members of the Electoral College.
— A renewed effort to amend the Maine Constitution to specifically bar discrimination based on gender faltered in the House. The lower chamber endorsed the measure in a Tuesday floor vote, but Republican opposition l eaves it seven votes short of the two-thirds support needed to advance a constitutional amendment.
On the road again
If you haven’t already heard, tomorrow will be my last day working with the politics team. After more than two years, I’m departing the Bangor Daily News for a journalism job back home in Kentucky. So far, my least favorite part of the transition is packing.
Not many people enjoy the task. I’ve moved four times since 2016, yet I haven’t necessarily improved at it. This time, though, I’m really trying. I’ve started labeling boxes, for example. I’m also actually purging the miscellany I’ve amazingly carried with me for years, because I’m a hoarder of ephemera. Obviously it’s sentimentality that spurs me to hold on to these “documents,” which I keep in a few tattered boxes and crinkled bags. The last few moves, probably because I’ve only been moving in state, I haven’t actually riffled through them, just carried the boxes and bags with me from place to place. I can’t afford to do that this time, and I’ve been sorting for days.
Here are some of the treasures: a 2013 pamphlet of events from the Fryeburg Fair; my college cell — a Samsung flip phone; gobs of jewelry my mother gave me to wear but I never did; letters I began writing when I was a camp counselor in 2010 but never finished; letters received from others that summer, including countless postcards and letters from people I’ve dated; a handful of wedding invitations, two of which have since ended in divorce; burned CDs from 2012; rad daguerreotypes I bought in thrift stores in college; old issues of The New Yorker kept because I truly thought I would read them again but never did; more than one Moleskin journal; my car registration from 2016 I haven’t been able to find since then; index cards from my final exam for my legal history class at Western Kentucky University; and one copy of my resume when I was jonesing for my first journalism job, after I’d spent a winter in Bar Harbor working on a farm and catering on the side. The catering portion reads: “My time is divided between independently cooking, serving and preparing hors d’oeuvres and pastries. This role not only included serving the wedding parties, but managing the allotted portions.”
When I was younger, this habit of never throwing away any sentimental item affected the cleanliness of my living spaces, especially my car. In 2015, my exasperated dad, visiting from Kentucky, offered to pay me $20 if I cleaned it out. Increasingly, though, I’ve kept this habit contained to a few boxes in my apartment closets. And I’ve accepted that’s likely how it will continue to be, especially now, as I leave Maine after living here for almost a decade. These are treasures, after all, and I’ve got to hold fast to them. Here’s your soundtrack. — Alex Acquisto
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.
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