AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills’ third major address to Maine lawmakers promises to be a more sterile affair than usual as the legislative session crawls forward during the coronavirus pandemic.
The State of the Budget address will air at 7p.m. Tuesday, but Mills’ words will be roughly a day old, as the governor is taping her speech Monday night, a spokesperson said. The pre-recorded nature of the typically live event means lawmakers will not be mixing to discuss policy in the hours before and after the speech goes live on Maine Public.
It is yet another example of how the pandemic is changing work in Augusta. A shift to almost fully remote work has frustrated lawmakers unused to handling a flood of information virtually and lobbyists used to working the hallways. Lawmakers have yet to convene in person since being sworn in December in the Augusta Civic Center to pass legislation.
Hearings have begun on the Democratic governor’s two-year, $8.4 billion budget proposal, which will be the focus of Mills’ speech on Tuesday night. She gave a baseline view of her proposal when it was unveiled in early January and mostly walked back a plan to tax certain proceeds from federal Paycheck Protection Program loans this month after business outcry.
These addresses are usually the most formal events of a legislative session. Guests often mingle in their best dress at receptions in the governor’s office suite. The speech often frames the chief executive’s goals and illuminates sticking points with the opposition party. Republican leaders have 3 minutes on TV to give a response after Mills’ Tuesday speech.
Lawmakers will watch from home — if they know the address is happening.
“I guess I totally missed that email,” said Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias. “But now that I know it’s going on, I’ll definitely be watching it.”
Tuell expected that the address would lack the “gravity” typically associated with the annual speeches and thought it could have waited until the next time lawmakers convened. But he and other policymakers still said they would be watching the speech closely.
Mills’ words will come at a critical juncture. She and the Legislature must address a $650 million revenue shortfall expected through 2023 as virus cases slow sharply but the pandemic remains uncertain. The governor framed her budget, which mostly holds state spending flat but remains well above the last one at a mark of just under $8 billion, as a “no-drama” document.
But minority Republicans want more permanent cuts and to curtail the governor’s emergency powers. Tuell said he would watch to see how Mills views her pandemic response and the economic recovery. A member of the State and Local Government Committee, he wants a bigger-picture view of those topics to get a sense of where the state is going.
“With everything on Zoom, there are 15 or 16 different Legislatures, because each committee is its own little world,” he said.
Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee, said she would be listening for consistency. She said the budget committee, already through the big-cost items like public health and education, is getting a sense of where Mills is going with her budget. The introduction of two recent changes by the governor to her supplemental budget — which could face a vote next month — could be signs that more change could come.
She also pointed to the prospect of another federal aid package and the duration of increased federal Medicaid matching rates. A possible $1.9 trillion federal relief package making its way through the Democratic-led Congress could also buoy state revenues even more.
“The unusual thing about the budget this year is so many moving parts, and so many of them are spinning,” Hymanson said. “Some haven’t even started spinning yet.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.