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Gov. Janet Mills is expected to release details of her proposed budget on Friday.
The budget comes as the state continues to deal with the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and its impact on many working families.
The good news — or perhaps the less-bad news — is that the state’s economy has performed better than predicted during the earliest days of the pandemic. Wages and salaries have rebounded better than expected — all those do-it-yourself outdoor projects helped to prop up revenues even as spending in other areas slipped, particularly in the hospitality sector.
As we await the release of the Mills’ budget, a poll released in December provides some insight on what voters are hoping to see.
The poll, which included 600 Maine respondents contacted online and via the telephone between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6 by the progressive advocacy group Mainers for Working Families, found that strong majorities want to protect essential services and believe that it’s critical that the federal government increase its response to COVID-19.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents support increased federal COVID-19 support, while only 21 percent say that the state should cut spending.
The poll found that Mainers understand the importance of investment to help the economy grow. Sizeable majorities in the poll support expanded funding for roads and bridges and education, and 50 percent said they support more spending for health care.
More than 60 percent of respondents said that they would support policies that control the costs of health care — particularly prescription drugs — and make health insurance more affordable and accessible. And 57 percent said they supported allowing people to buy into the state’s Medicaid program.
Maine is notorious for being extremely sensitive to tax and fee increases. But this poll found that voters are prioritizing investment over austerity and would be willing to consider a number of tax changes to ensure those investments occur.
No surprise, 70 percent say that they would support policies that ensure that corporations pay their fair share by closing tax loopholes, and 58 percent say that the wealthy should be paying more.
The findings from the poll aren’t surprising. Most Mainers recognize that during a time of a global emergency, government has a big role to play in making sure that people have enough to eat, a safe place to live and an economic bridge to recovery.
When businesses are closed through no fault of their own — when the economy was strong but-for the coronavirus — people see that the old tropes about lazy people gaming the system don’t hold much water.
Mainers want everyone to have access to quality affordable health care, they see that schools and colleges need more resources, and they know we have to maintain key infrastructure if our economy is to recover. And they are willing to pay for it.
Mills has been pragmatic and cautious in her response to COVID-19. She has prioritized public health while trying to put guardrails up around the economy to keep as many people as possible from sliding into despair.
The balance is tricky. With Maine’s COVID-19 numbers surging, more restrictions make sense, but without new aid to businesses, the governor has been reluctant to go beyond current measures.
She has weathered criticism from Republicans, who casually throw around words such as dictator and tyrant, but the results speak for themselves. Maine’s public health and economy have survived better than most other states.
On Friday, Mills is likely to unveil a modest budget that includes increased spending to meet Maine’s needs.
Republicans will cry foul.
But Mainers are clear. This is no time for foolish and arbitrary austerity. It’s a time to invest in one another and in our state’s long-term health.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.