Good morning from Augusta. Gov. Janet Mills will be revealing her budget proposal today. Here’s your soundtrack.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It felt like a dream at first, I was so happy,” said Kendra Armstrong, whose cat, Moose, was returned five years after he went missing. “I was so excited, not only to know that he was alive, but to get him back, it’s like the craziest thing ever and I never would have expected it.”
What we’re watching today
The high-wire act of negotiating Maine’s budget for the next two years begins in earnest today, with top officials promising a mostly flat package. A noon news conference today is expected to reveal a funding proposal through mid-2023 that “constrains new spending” and avoids tax increases, budget commissioner Kirsten Figueroa told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday. But even flat budgets are a challenge when the economic landscape is so uncertain and Republicans are pushing for spending cuts.
Maine fared better than most states that saw revenues dive during the coronavirus pandemic. But spending is expected to drop through the winter and job recovery has been slow. Lower extended unemployment benefits and other elements in the stimulus package Congress passed in December will help but may not be enough to shock the economy back to life.
The $650 million revenue shortfall is nothing to sneeze at, either. Figueroa said she was confident the budget proposal would cover an expected drop in funding through 2023. The idea is to use austerity measures instituted last year as well as federal aid and other sources of federal funding, to still provide the same level of service while also focusing on the pandemic.
It is not clear how the Democratic governor will get there yet, but leftover Medicare funds will likely contribute. Spending on that program was down 23 percent in the first quarter of this fiscal year, according to an expenditure report, partly because of a federal matching bump.
Although Figueroa promised not to touch the state’s rainy day fund, reserves are being tapped. Mills’ has already approved a curtailment package that would tap a profitable liquor contract pool, and $184 million left over from last year’s budget is likely to come into play as budget officials empty the drawers.
Mills is also promising an ambitious agenda that may be difficult under a flat budget. She told the Bangor Daily News in a December interview that public health infrastructure and education funding are among her top priorities this year, along with bolstering the child welfare program and tackling the opioid crisis. Those goals may be difficult to accomplish in a recession, even though Mills said she would leverage federal dollars to do so. Keeping taxes flat was one of Mills’ campaign promises, one she will be likely to rely upon should she run for another term — something she is likely to do.
The Maine politics top 3
— “Bangor-area Republicans condemn Capitol violence, but don’t necessarily blame Trump,” David Marino Jr. and Eesha Pendharkar, Bangor Daily News: “I can imagine going and protesting. I cannot imagine not walking away when people start acting like that,” said Jennifer DeGroff, a former Bangor School Committee member who has twice voted for Trump even though she’s a registered Democrat. “I think that people need to be arrested for the appropriate charges.”
Talk of removing Trump from office is growing among the Maine delegation. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Thursday that the president’s cabinet should consider invoking the 25th Amendment after he whipped up supporters before the Capitol insurrection but was slow to condemn it after it happened. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree signed onto two Democratic-led resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment, which a Democratic leader said could pass the House next week. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District and Sen. Susan Collins have not supported backing removal under the 25th Amendment.
— “Maine sees record COVID-19 hospitalizations as pandemic rages across state,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “Several other metrics indicate additional cause for concern. The seven-day average of new virus cases surpassed 500 for the first time this week, though it dropped to 490 on Thursday. Hospital numbers tend to lag behind case counts, suggesting that a higher infection rate seen in the first week of January could further drive up hospitalizations in the coming weeks.”
The U.S. also set a grim new death record this week and Maine reported its highest total today. Thursday saw more than 4,000 new virus deaths registered nationwide, the deadliest day of the pandemic so far. Total deaths since the start of the pandemic now exceed 360,000. Maine saw a record-breaking 41 deaths reported just today.
— “Maine construction industry fueled by pandemic-related home building, upgrades,” Lori Valigra, BDN: “Construction employment rose in Maine over nine months of 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic hit the state, with out-of-state demand for new homes and upgrades to existing real estate buoying a lackluster market, a national industry group said Thursday.”
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Caitlin Andrews, Jessica Piper and Michael Shepherd. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.
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