AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills proposed a spending package of nearly $127 million on Monday, including a $37 million increase in public education funding in a roadmap that will define much of the Legislature’s agenda in a short, election-year session in 2020.
The $126.6 million proposal — which includes a $20 million transfer to the state’s rainy day fund — spends down a surplus that has steadily grown and leaves just $6 million in unallocated money through the next budget year. Minority Republicans have long been critical of the spending level of nearly $8 billion in the two-year budget passed in 2019.
It could also endanger a consensus effort to plug an annual $232 million shortfall for road and bridge maintenance. The Mills plan allocates $10 million in surplus money for transportation while the Democratic governor proposes a separate borrowing proposal that would send another $100 million to roads and bridges and $15 million to broadband expansion.
These kinds of supplemental budgets are common in even-numbered years, though Mills and her administration were coy whether such a proposal was coming in late 2019. The Democratic governor acknowledged it was coming in early January while giving few details. Parts of it were fleshed out over the course of past month, including in Mills’ State of the State speech.
“It takes care that one-time monies are used to fulfill our obligation to fund schools, child welfare and public safety,” Mills said at a Monday news conference.
The biggest item in the proposal is the increase in public education funding. It would lift the state’s share of essential education spending — split between Maine and municipalities — from nearly 51 percent to 52 percent, though it is still short of a never-met 55 percent statutory goal.
Mills’ spending proposal includes another $10 million in surplus money for roads and bridges as a state commission works on a long-term funding fix as a state commission looks to plug the transportation shortfall. The gas tax is the dominant source of state transportation funding, but Republicans have generally resisted increasing it while floating surplus money as an option.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who co-chairs the blue-ribbon commission on transportation funding, said the proposal “opened the door” for further general fund spending on transportation and called continued borrowing “not good budgeting and it’s not good government.”
But Sen. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock, one of the Republicans on the commission, said the proposal “effectively destroys” the group’s efforts, saying members of both parties have worked toward a funding solution that included “substantial investment” from the state budget.
Other highlights that emerged in the proposal were signaled in January, including 20 more caseworkers for the embattled child welfare system, $6.8 million more for the university and community college system and 10 more state troopers and four state police sergeants.
After Mills released the plan, Democrats and Republicans said they wanted to see nursing home funding and more money for direct care workers that was absent in the proposal. Mills noted nursing home funding in last year’s budget and said the state should take a holistic look at rate increases “instead of just throwing money at a particular program or a particular agency.”
Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the co-chair of the budget committee “every legislator in this building” has constituents who can’t find services, while Assistant Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, criticized the possibility of more spending that “isn’t going to help take care of Grammy and Grandpa and the rest of them.”
The initiatives in the spending package will be considered by legislative panels and go to the budget committee for reworking and approval. It is likely to go up for final votes in the Democratic-led chambers by spring. Under normal budget processes, it would need two-thirds support in both to take effect, though Democrats could push it through alone.