Gov. Janet Mills proposed sweeping investments in education, child care and health care, and announced a plan to provide $500 checks to 800,000 Maine taxpayers during a State of the State address to the Legislature Thursday.
Mills delivered her first in-person address to a joint session of the Legislature since the pandemic began in 2020. She highlighted the progress the state has made in fighting the pandemic, while also sounding caution about the uncertainties that lie ahead.
“Our presence in this chamber tonight is a sign of progress, of recovery – a step forward in our march towards normalcy and stability, especially from where we have been,” Mills said. “We have arrived at yet another inflection point in this winding pandemic, a hopeful moment as we welcome downward trends and declining hospitalizations; a warmer, brighter spring as we emerge from a cold, dark winter.”
Mills, who wore a mask throughout the address, made it clear that there would be no return to the economic shutdowns and restrictions from early in the pandemic even as she noted that the pandemic is not over.
“Last year’s emergency measures no longer serve the purposes they once did, nor should they,” she said. “As science and trends evolve, our response evolves as well.”
Mills touted the economic gains and the state’s strong budgetary position, which is in part the result of federal funding and has resulted in a projected surplus of $822 million through mid-2023. However, she noted that many Mainers are still struggling to meet increased costs of food and fuel.
Mills said she wants to return half of the projected surplus – $411 million – to about 800,000 taxpayers by issuing checks of about $500 to each person. That’s nearly double the amount of the checks sent to Mainers last year as part of a pandemic relief effort.
The checks, as well as her other proposals, must first be approved by the Legislature. She made a point of crediting “my friends across the aisle” for suggesting the idea of giving taxpayers half of the surplus, naming Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake of Turner and Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, both Republicans.
The last round of relief payments of $285 went to about 500,000 Maine residents who earned less than $75,000 as an individual or $150,000 as a married couple. This one, if approved by the Legislature, would benefit a broader group of taxpayers, although eligibility details were not immediately available.
Mills also pledged to make high-speed internet available to anyone who wants it by 2024 through the Maine Connectivity Authority, created by bipartisan legislation, but did not lay out a plan to get there.
After the speech, Republican leaders accused Mills of painting too positive a picture of the state economy, saying Maine’s unemployment rate of 4.7 percent is higher than neighboring New Hampshire’s rate of 2.6 percent. They also brought up the current national inflation rate of 7.5 percent, the highest it’s been in 40 years. And they noted that Mills did not directly address the recent child deaths and the scrutiny of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The speech she gave tonight – you’d think the state of Maine was in the most rosy spot in the whole wide world,” Timberlake said in a televised interview with MPBN. “We didn’t hear tonight about the problems DHHS is having with children … the transparency has been a real problem and I have concerns about that.”
House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford said she was encouraged by Mills’ calls for bipartisanship. Dillingham said that Mills touched on topics important to Republicans, such as child care, work force development, education and broadband internet access, but she said Republicans needed to see more details about the governor’s proposals before they could pledge support.
“Devil’s in the details and I’d love to see more of them,” she said.
Mills’ 50-minute address was interrupted by applause nearly three dozen times and was punctuated with laughter. She peppered the speech with a lot of “only in Maine” references, ranging from forester wisdom – “the stronger the wind, the tougher trees” – to dire Moxie shortages.
When it was over, Republicans who gathered in the Capitol halls called the address a campaign speech.
REPUBLICANS HEARD A CAMPAIGN SPEECH
Mills did not address by name her expected opponent in November, former Gov. Paul LePage, but she did make references to the previous administration’s refusal to issue voter-approved bonds for senior affordable housing and cut the Drugs for the Elderly program, which has been reinstated. Mills celebrated her decision to expand MaineCare insurance eligibility And she highlighted headlines from LePage’s term in office about workforce shortages.
“Our workforce shortage is a serious problem,” Mills said. “It is a problem I inherited, but it is not one that I will leave to our grandchildren to solve.”
While she didn’t mention him, LePage didn’t hesitate to pan her address and her first-term track record. He issued a response calling himself a job creator and accused her of using federal “funny money” to “paper over her failure to manage Maine’s economy.”
“Tonight, Janet Mills gave her re-election campaign speech in a building full of political insiders,” he wrote in a statement. “It is fitting for someone born and raised in politics. Instead of working to fully eliminate Maine’s income tax like I have proposed, Janet Mills is promising more and more spending.”
Mills offered a particularly passionate defense of her vaccine mandates, which have been criticized by LePage and other Republicans. She noted that mandates have been supported by a half a dozen national and local medical associations, plus Maine’s two largest hospitals.
“And they can’t all be wrong,” she said, pointing her finger at the Republican side of the isle.
BID TO DEFUSE CRITICISM
Mills used the word “progress” 22 times and near the end of her speech attempted to use humor to diffuse criticism from progressives. Using a barn-building analogy, Mills urged everyone to pitch in and help.
“Let’s not argue about how many nails are in your nail gun,” she said, “Or will the very rich pay for the shingles?”
After noting that the Rainy Day Fund has reached $500 million under her administration – the highest ever – Mills outlined a series of investments that will be in her supplemental budget proposal, which will be submitted next week and then vetted by the Legislature. They include $50 million in state and federal funding to hospitals and nursing homes and $12 million to increase the pay of childcare workers.
She’s also proposing the creation of an Education Stabilization Fund, infused with $30 million from the General Fund, so the state can maintain its commitment to cover 55 percent of the costs of public education.
And she is proposing funding for universal free meals in schools and one-time funding for Maine-built greenhouses for schools for community gardens both to teach kids and families how to grow their own food and to get more locally grown food into schools.
Mills also unveiled a proposal to pay for up to two years of tuition at community college for high school students affected by the pandemic. Students who graduated in 2020, 2021 and 2022, plus those who graduate in 2023, will be eligible if they enroll as full-time students. The program would be funded through a one-time transfer to the Maine Community College System and would require legislative approval.
“And if you are someone who’s already started a two-year program, we’ve got your back, too,” she said. “We will cover the last dollar of your second year,” meaning both tuition and mandatory fees would be paid for.
She is also proposing funding to “stave off” tuition hikes in the University of Maine System, but did not offer details.
The community college proposal drew mixed reaction from Republicans.
Mills also touted a bill sponsored by Assistant Senate Minority Leader Sen. Matt Pouliot, a Republican, to streamline the Maine Opportunity Tax Credit to help offset student debt and help attract young people to the state and keep them here.
“This legislation, which received bipartisan support in committee, transforms the program from an obscure bureaucratic tax benefit available to just a few, into a strong student debt relief tool available to all,” she said. “I like it.”
OTHER PRIORITIES NOT DISCUSSED
Prior to her speech, Mills laid out other priorities for the session, but did not discuss them much Thursday night.
They include a bill to strengthen oversight of the child protective services by increasing resources and staff for the child welfare ombudsman, who serves as a watchdog for families interacting with the system. She also proposed adding child protection caseworkers to cover overnight, weekend and holiday shifts, rather than forcing existing staff, already on the brink of burnout, to work overtime.
Mills has also unveiled plans to provide a one-time utility bill credit of $90 to help about 900,000 low-income households pay for rising utility bills – a program that will cost $8 million.
Additionally, Mills has proposed a utility accountability bill that threatens underperforming utility companies with steep financial penalties or even the potential of forcing the sale of assets to another company or a consumer-owned utility. It’s a centrist position, supported by at least two Republicans, that takes aim at unpopular utility companies without backing a campaign to create a consumer-owned electric utility in Maine.
Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this article.
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