Good morning from Augusta.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Now, the right-to-know law is sort of Swiss cheese, with many dozens of individual exceptions protecting certain discrete types of records, or discrete meeting subjects, from the public’s right to know,” Sigmund Schutz, a Preti Flaherty lawyer and expert in Freedom of Access Act law, said of how Piscataquis County commissioners may not face penalties for meeting in secret to pass a resolution against Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s your soundtrack.
What we’re watching today
The governor has boxed out Republicans on taxes by holding the line during her tenure, but the state’s response to recent federal cuts prompted an outcry. The story of Monday in Augusta was Gov. Janet Mills’ plan to pass only a sliver of the tax cuts passed by Congress around virus aid onto Maine businesses for state tax purposes. The plan would pass through $11 million in cuts through mid-2023, while Kirsten Figueroa, Maine’s budget commissioner, cited a cost of $100 million in a year as a main reason the state cannot deliver full conformity.
The federal tax cuts delivered in December can be seen as a stimulus on top of earlier stimulus benefits to businesses, including forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses and other grants. While the federal government can run a deficit to fund these things, states must balance budgets and often only partially conform to big federal changes.
These changes came as the Democratic governor was about to propose a two-year budget at $8.4 billion. It largely holds spending flat, but is roughly $400 million higher than the last budget. Republicans, however, want to buffer the budget during the pandemic with spending cuts.
Not surprisingly, they and business groups also want the state to pass along all federal tax cuts. Under the current plan, businesses would have to treat Paycheck Protection Program loans as income for state tax but could deduct the essential expenses made with proceeds. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, suggested $100 million in cuts to conform.
After the criticism, Figueroa shot back in a late Monday statement that Republicans should join the administration to call for direct federal aid to states. Mills has so far avoided tax fights with the minority party after a 2018 campaign pledge to not raise them. Republicans now hold some sway with a two-thirds vote likely needed to advance a conformity proposal ahead of Tax Day.
The budget conversation today will focus on safety net benefits and Medicare money. The budget panel will reconvene at 10 a.m. for a hearing on Mills’ budget. The Medicare portion will be key to covering part of Maine’s budget shortfall, as the administration wants to use higher federal matching funds to cover part of the deficit. But the state is also looking to transfer $25 million into a MaineCare reserve fund as enrollment continues to increase and expand transportation benefits to people who lost eligibility for cash assistance because of employment.
The Maine politics top 3
— “Susan Collins isn’t saying how she will vote on impeaching Trump unlike most senators,” Jessica Piper, BDN: “Senators are set to be sworn in for the trial Tuesday, though the trial over allegations that Trump incited the Jan. 6 attack of the U.S. Capitol will not begin in earnest until February. Collins has voted against removing a president both times the question has faced her in the Senate — in 1999 when she broke with fellow Republicans to acquit Bill Clinton and last year when she stuck with all but one member of her party to clear [President Donald] Trump.”
Senators will be sworn in for the trial today before pausing until Feb. 8. Trump’s lawyers will get a chance to prepare his defense while the Senate will work on confirming President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees. Congress may also consider additional stimulus, though members of Maine’s delegation have indicated some skepticism about Biden’s proposed legislation, suggesting major changes could be necessary to pass anything in the next few weeks.
— “Hancock County sheriff won’t let group help addicted inmates over its support for Black Lives Matter,” Bill Trotter, BDN: “Sheriff Scott Kane, a Republican who has been in office since 2015, wouldn’t reconsider the move even after the group, the Ellsworth nonprofit Healthy Acadia, revised its statement to less directly address police brutality and avoid mentioning the organization that has spearheaded demonstrations across the U.S. over the past year against racial inequity.”
Inmates at the Hancock County jail have been without recovery coaching services since June, though the sheriff said that could soon change. The jail administration has been “turning over rocks for months, trying to find somebody,” Kane said, but may soon have a contract with an organization he declined to identify.
— “Janet Mills proposes offshore wind moratorium to quell fisheries concerns,” Lori Valigra, BDN: “The proposed moratorium will not affect the University of Maine’s New England Aqua Ventus project, which aims to establish a single-turbine demonstration site in state-managed waters near Monhegan. There are no current applications for offshore wind projects in state-managed waters, where a majority of Maine’s commercial fishing occurs.”
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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