Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, speaks to the press at the Augusta Civic Center in this December file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Good morning from Augusta. On this day 194 years ago, Maine’s governor signed a bill establishing Augusta as the state capital, replacing Portland. Here’s your soundtrack.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I worked through the AIDS epidemic, swine flu, Ebola, but I knew this one would take a toll on my psyche,” Debra Labbe, a retired nurse who formerly worked at Maine Medical Center, said of the hospital’s nurses’ unionization efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic. “I wasn’t into taking that risk.”

What we’re watching today

A top legislative Republican said he was supportive of many initiatives Gov. Janet Mills proposed in her budget address — but not necessarily paying for them. The highlight of Mills’ third address to lawmakers on Tuesday was a $111 million bond package aimed at helping Maine’s economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The package would include $50 million for heritage Maine industries like farming, fishing and forestry, $30 million for broadband expansion, $25 million for career training and $6 million for child care.

That is only the part that Mills outlined on Tuesday, however. Mills said she will also propose more borrowing for transportation, waterfronts, research and development and energy efficiency projects. Given the $100 million in annual bonding factored into the Maine Department of Transportation’s work plan, the whole package could near or exceed $250 million. 

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, said Tuesday night after the speech that there was no doubt that the state needs more high-speed internet, which has become critical for people working and learning from home during the pandemic. He liked the idea of putting more money toward conservation, another area Mills has tried to secure bonds for in recent years.

But Timberlake said it was hard to support a package he did not have the full details on and questioned the sense of bonding out a large package when the state’s economic recovery was uncertain. He said support for a bond package could also hinge on the total price for Mills two-year budget. Republicans would like to curtail it, but negotiations have just begun.

“Just because I support it, doesn’t mean we can afford it,” he said.

Bonding has been a thorny subject during the Mills administration. Republicans blocked three out of four bond proposals during her first year in office, but the financing method has been integral for funding transportation. Voters have long supported transportations bonds and backed a broadband bond last summer. Interest rates are also low and will likely stay that way until the economy recovers, the Federal Reserve has indicated.

But Timberlake’s wariness could set the tone for budget negotiations in Augusta. The state will not have a new revenue forecast until the spring, which could change Mills’ $8.4 billion package significantly. But the budget needs a two-third vote to pass, and minority Republicans have been adamant that they would like to see a lower number. 

Some Democrats may also call for more investment. They may have some bipartisan support there, as Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, is already championing a $100 million broadband bond. It’s likely the bond package will need some change if Mills wants to see it pass.

The Maine politics top 3

— “Low supply and state priorities leave immigrants lagging in Maine’s vaccine rollout,” Jessica Piper, Bangor Daily News: “Much of the early vaccine gap likely stems from the state’s eligibility requirements. Mainers 70 and older are the current priority and immigrants skew younger. But as they do outreach in their communities, advocates also say complex registration requirements and barriers to information and transportation limit access for older immigrants in Maine.”

There will soon be more places for the general public to get vaccinated. Walgreens will start offering doses to older Mainers next week at around 40 locations. Mainers can also get vaccinated at Walmart or a hospital if it is receiving doses.

Meanwhile, vaccination rates among staff at long-term care facilities continue to vary widely. A BDN survey of 25 nursing homes found rates between 55 percent and 100 percent, with some workers citing concerns about lack of knowledge about the vaccine, though clinical trials have shown it to be safe and effective. While any low numbers are a vulnerability to a return to normal in these settings, Maine’s vaccination rate remains higher than national rates.

— “Susan Collins: Biden’s $1.9T virus aid bill unlikely to get Senate GOP support,” Piper, BDN: “[U.S. Sen. Susan Collins], who consistently has the most moderate voting record in her party, according to VoteView, is among the Senate Republicans generally seen as most open to compromise with Biden. She led 10 Republicans in a meeting with the Democratic president in early February, where they pitched a $618 billion alternative to the president’s plan.”

The Maine senator is frustrated with Biden and his administration, saying the president is being “countermanded” by others. Collins emerged from that meeting with Biden “hopeful” for a bipartisan relief deal, but Democrats quickly moved forward with a partisan bill. Little has changed. The senator dished more to reporters on Tuesday, according to The Hill. She said Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, was “shaking his head in the back of the room” at the meeting. While Collins said she has had good talks with Biden, she added that those negotiations are being “countermanded” by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.

— “Former Calais cop twice accused of breaking the law but was not fired either time,” Bill Trotter, BDN: “In 2007, Jeffrey Bishop … was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of attempted criminal mischief while employed as a patrol deputy by the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and now he is facing five felony drug furnishing and trafficking charges. He was arrested on the drug charges earlier this month less than a week after he worked his last shift as a patrol officer for the Calais Police Department.” 

Bust of Maine-born House speaker damaged in Jan. 6 riots

A statue of a former U.S. representative and House speaker from Maine was among those damaged at the Capitol riots last month. A bust of House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, a Republican from Portland who served for 24 years in the House in the late 19th century, including six years as one of the most important speakers in history, was one of eight pieces of the House Collection damaged that day, according to prepared remarks from House Curator Farar Elliott.

Elliot, who will testify in front of a congressional panel today, said the Reed bust and others were covered with chemical residue after the attacks, likely from discharge of a nearby fire extinguisher, which can discolor the stone.

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Jessica Piper, Michael Shepherd and Caitlin Andrews. 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.

To reach us, do not reply directly to this newsletter, but contact the political team at mshepherd@bangordailynews.com, candrews@bangordailynews.com or jpiper@bangordailynews.com.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...