AUGUSTA, Maine — In her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills called for more child welfare caseworkers, asked lawmakers to pass borrowing proposals while adding $20 million to the state’s reserve fund and urged a new affordable housing tax credit.
The Democratic governor used her address, which came just over a year into her tenure, to balance what she called an “ambitious” agenda with a desire to be “cautious” on the economy. She focused on her key issues of health care, the opioid crisis and climate change while offering a smattering of new policy proposals across the board.
“We can do these things,” said Mills, contrasting state politics with divisive fights in Congress in a refrain throughout speech. “We are not Washington. We are Maine.”
Her address came after a 2019 legislative session in which majority Democrats pushed through measures including ones expanding abortion rights while bargaining with minority Republicans on paid leave, workers’ compensation and a replacement to a so-called “red flag” bill.
But 2020 brings a November election that hangs over a shorter, four-month legislative session. Republicans have continued to assail the level of spending in a two-year state budget worth just under $8 billion and see it as a powerful general election argument.
In her speech on Tuesday, Mills proposed adding 20 additional positions to Maine’s child welfare system, adding to the 32 additional staff funded in last year’s budget, calling the positions a “down payment” while invoking Kendall Chick and Marissa Kennedy, the girls who died in high-profile cases in 2017 and 2018, respectively, that kicked off reform efforts.
Mills’ remarks amounted to a preview of her supplemental budget proposal for 2020, which is expected to be presented to the Legislature in the coming weeks but has only been teased in isolated interviews so far. The proposal comes a week after a watchdog found major issues with 40 percent of the child welfare cases it examined before September of last year.
Mills also floated two bond proposals on broadband and conservation that failed to win approval from Republicans in 2019 amid a squabble with Democrats over packaging them with a more popular transportation bond proposal. At the same time, she vowed to add $20 million more to the state’s rainy day fund, though Republicans may want more given a $120 million surplus.
She called on lawmakers to increase funding to the state’s transportation system, which is facing a $233 million annual shortfall. The governor offered an olive branch to Republicans by saying she would support diverting some state budget money to help increase funding while avoiding any mention of a gas tax increase currently under consideration by a state commission.
Republican leadership were pleased by Mills’ willingness to work with them on transportation, but agreed with little else in the speech. Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said Mills gave few details on where new proposed spending would come from.
“All the details will come and that’s when the real work begins,” he said. “That’s when a feel-good speech turns into a reality and then we start working and juggling positions and trying to solve the problems.”
Addressing climate change, Mills cited her administration’s efforts to expand solar installations across the state. But she turned to a second kind of renewable energy — offshore wind — as the focus in the coming year, pointing to a pilot project led by University of Maine researchers. She said she will visit Scotland later this year to see offshore platforms there.
On health care, the governor highlighted the reach of expanded MaineCare, which she did on her first day in office after her predecessor delayed expansion for years, but said more work needs to be done to increase the program’s reach. The program currently has over 43,000 enrollees, but the department has said 57,000 have been enrolled over the course of last year.
Mills also pressed for the need to make health insurance more accessible, pointing to a bill that would create a state-level Affordable Care Act exchange and combine individual and small-group health insurance markets.
The governor also voiced support for a bill sponsored by Assistant Majority Leader Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, that would create an affordable housing tax credit worth $80 million over four years, with 10 percent of the credit being reserved for the purchase of at-risk units.
“Send that bill to my desk and I will sign it,” Mills said.
Mills took the opportunity to recognize the state’s first responders and called for increased benefits. While discussing the death of Maine State Police Detective Ben Campbell of Millinocket, who was struck by a tire while helping a stranded motorist last year, she called on the Legislature to increase the state benefit for families of fallen first responders.