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QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I think it’s certainly one of those years that will be written about in the history books and people will talk about,” Alison McKellar, a Camden selectboard member, said of the town’s plans to bury a time capsule documenting 2020 beneath a parking lot. “So it’s interesting to think right now, ‘OK, well what will be said in the future?’”
What we’re watching today
Maine’s governor is calling for sweeping cuts to state agencies and the demand will dominate state politics for months to come. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills dropped that news in an email from Kristen Figueroa, the governor’s budget commissioner, to agency heads late in the work day on Wednesday (you can read it here). She is looking for most agencies to propose 10 percent cost reductions over the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021.
The state is looking for ways to close the projected $524 million budget gap caused by the coronavirus-induced economic downturn, but that is just the beginning as the administration readies an interim cost reduction package to be presented to the Legislature as forecasters predicting another $1 billion shortfall over the next two budget years.
After going from a good-times governor to a crisis leader virtually overnight, Mills seems to be eyeing steep cuts if federal aid isn’t increased or made more flexible. The sudden nature of such a gap is unprecedented. During a recession in 2009, Gov. John Baldacci needed to make up a predicted $570 million gap over two years. Republicans swept the 2010 election.
Mills finds herself in between Republicans who think she should have spent less money and progressives who want to raise taxes. That is a callback to budget discussions after the governor took office in 2019 with dueling campaign pledges to not raise taxes and implement voter-approved (and court-mandated) Medicaid expansion. It resulted in an $8 billion budget proposed at 11 percent over the baseline that was only minimally reduced by the time it passed.
Republicans are saying they told her so as she looks to cut out a similar portion. Progressives, on the other hand, are beginning to lament the tilt toward austerity, with James Myall, an analyst for the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy, tweeting that the state should look to raise 10 percent in revenue by “taxing the rich.” There is much more to come.
The Maine politics top 3
— “How misconduct allegations against men turned into ammunition in Maine’s US Senate race,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “The result has been a volley of unproven misconduct allegations in a race where both major candidates are women. They provide fodder for Republicans to attack House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, over her responses to different allegations against men of different political leanings as [U.S. Sen. Susan Collins] weathers progressive anger over alleged misdeeds in her own party.”
— “2nd effort to call Maine Legislature back fails amid squabble over session’s scope,” Caitlin Andrews, Bangor Daily News: “Republicans polled their own members and largely refused to participate in the exercise, following the same playbook that they followed last month after Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and [Gideon] sent out another poll Tuesday night.”
— “How hotel chains got a slice of government aid for small businesses,” Isaac Arnsdorf, ProPublica: “Up to $1 billion in small business relief dollars went to hotel chains with more than 500 employees. One beneficiary was the client of a former aide to [Collins] who was among many lobbying her to create this special exception.”
The Paycheck Protection Program has been one of the thornier storylines in Maine’s U.S. Senate race. Collins has not shied away from taking credit for the program, touting its ability to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. The program will end this week unless Congress agrees to extend it, though Collins and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have proposed another version for hard-hit businesses only.
Gideon had argued the loan program was mostly beneficial to large corporations special interests, though her husband’s law firm received more than $1 million. Her spokesperson has defended the loan by arguing more than 400 law firms in Maine received help.
Hotel chains were allowed to receive loans if they had individual locations with fewer than 500 employees, a provision Collins office said would help locally owned hotels in Maine. But the ProPublica story comes on the heels of a Washington Post report which found that some large hotel groups that received loans had not rehired workers, as the program intended and as is required for forgiveness.
The controversy underscores a central question about PPP, where the answer may be different to people of different political persuasions and values. The program, with its straightforward application process, was designed to get money out the door quickly, though it was easiest for businesses with pre-existing connections to banks.
A more complicated application process would have made it more difficult for businesses that needed help to get anything. But the criteria also meant that some well-connected interests — whether law firms or large hotel groups — also got money, whether they needed it or not.
Lawmakers get an update on fraught tribal sovereignty talks
Tribes were frustrated at a lack of progress in negotiations with the governor’s office last week. Now, the Legislature could take over. We got a glimpse last week of newly restarted negotiations between Mills’ office and tribes on a massive sovereignty bid that would overhaul the state’s relationship with native people by making changes to a 1980 land-claims settlement in 23 distinct policy areas. It was not pretty.
The Mills administration made an offer to tribes on two of the policy areas — taxation and criminal jurisdiction — and they were far from agreement on the latter. Many members of the Legislature’s Judiciary panel were frustrated with the delay. The panel will meet again today to discuss it and could take a vote on the measure, though it faces an uncertain path.
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, email firstname.lastname@example.org (we’re setting up a new subscriber page soon) to subscribe to it via email.