Mills threads the needle as legislators look to patch together budget plan

It was a workmanlike beginning to the 129th Legislature. Bills were drafted, printed and assigned to committees. Hearings were scheduled. The House and Senate met now and again, processing mostly routine matters. Athletes, retirees and the city of Auburn were congratulated. A bill to “Exclude Antique Tractors from the Laws Governing Motor Vehicle Racing” was unanimously opposed in committee and dispatched to the dead file.

Then came the release of Governor Janet Mills’ first biannual budget on Feb. 8 and the partisan lines began to be drawn. This is not unexpected. The budget is the biggest single policy document considered by the Legislature, and debate hinges on the ideological differences between the parties.

There was abundant expectation that Democrats, constrained by the previous fiscal conservatism of Governor Paul LePage, were hot to spend, spend, spend. Governor Mills had issued fair warning that that was not her plan. She vowed not to raise taxes, at least in her first budget, but has called for more spending than can be maintained without them.

Her two-year budget, with a bottom line of about $8 billion, is a double-digit increase over the previous one. She includes increased spending for K-12 education, a gradual return to full funding for state-municipal revenue sharing and funding for Medicaid expansion. She proposed a minimum teacher salary of $40,000 and a move toward universal pre-K by 2022.

One sign that the Governor managed to thread the needle is that both sides were quick to raise objections. For Democrats, there was not enough spending. They would have liked to see more progress toward the mandated but unmet goal of 55 percent state support for education. For Republicans, there was too much spending, though they like the fact that the Mills budget does not draw on the reserve fund built up by the LePage administration.

Governor Mills anticipated the reaction of both parties, saying, “This budget lays out a responsible path for rebuilding state government so that government responds to Maine people.”

It takes a transfer forward from this fiscal year and spending just about every penny projected as revenue in the next two years to make this budget balance, risky business should there be a decline in economic fortunes. But for starters it is not a bad compromise between Democrat and Republican goals.

One of the biggest concerns expressed by Republicans, though it should matter to all of us, is the degree to which the Governor’s budget depends on one-time money. That makes it unsustainable for the long term. It is not uncommon for legislatures to proceed this way, hoping to figure out a way to keep programs going over time, but it can lead to a messy confrontation with reality in the subsequent budget.

In Mills’ cover letter transmitting her budget to the Legislature, she identified clear priorities. The lack of affordable health care. Inadequate resources for education. A “devastating” opioid epidemic. A serious workforce shortage. An outdated and unsafe infrastructure. These areas are where she aims her fiscal firepower. State employment remains at roughly the same level, with only a small number of jobs added, largely in law enforcement.

Governor Mills also made clear her intent to aggressively seek out “valuable federal resources,” some of which were left on the table by the previous administration.

When it comes to budget debates, who you gonna call? In Maine, you visit the oracle, none other than Rep. Sawin Millet. Rep. Millet has served four administrations. He was commissioner of education for Governor James Longley, commissioner of administrative and financial services for Governors John McKernan and Paul LePage and associate commissioner of mental health and substance abuse services for then Governor, now Sen. Angus King. He logged a decade of service in the Maine House of Representatives, during which he served multiple times on the Appropriations Committee.

Millet knows Maine government inside and out, especially when it comes to finances. He has again been appointed to Appropriations for this term. He is universally respected for his encyclopedic fiscal knowledge, an honest and humble savant when it comes to budgetary matters. In commenting on the Mills budget, he cited the need to “bring it down to some level of reality in terms of what we can justify.” Some level of reality? Roll up your sleeves, appropriators, Sawin says there is work to do.

In addition to hoping for looser purse strings for the Maine budget, Democratic legislators are not holding back when it comes to general fund bond proposals. There are 24 of these now in print, every single one sponsored by a Democrat.

The state budget is now in the hands of the appropriators in Room 228. They will examine every penny, working toward an end point that balances state needs against state resources. We wish them well.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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