Gov. Janet Mills delivered the state of the budget address Tuesday night, outlining the details of her spending plan while also announcing new initiatives to combat the climate and drug crises and pledging to support a housing first model amid widespread affordability issues in Maine.
The address comes after Mills, a Democrat, released her $10.3 billion budget proposal in January. The budget plan represented a 9.6% increase in spending and largely continued and expanded on existing programs.
In her address Tuesday, Mills argued that the state of Maine’s budget is strong, pointing to yet another surplus in funds, and said her spending plan will put the state on the right path going forward.
“If we provide the human infrastructure — a strong health care system, good schools, housing, roads, child care, broadband — then the people of Maine will do the rest,” Mills said. “And that is what this budget does. It carries forward what we promised to the people of Maine. With it, we will unlock our vast potential.”
Highlights of her budget proposal include $30 million to address affordable housing issues, funds to maintain state revenue sharing with municipalities at 5%, $101 million to continue the state’s commitment to funding 55% of education costs, $58 million for universal free meals in schools for kids, and $10.5 million to expand pre-K.
The governor also proposed spending $7.8 million for salary supplements for child care workers and $15 million to continue providing up to two years of free community college. In addition, the budget provides $237 million for mental health and substance use disorder programs, $144 million for strengthening care for older Mainers, $84 million meant to fully clear a waitlist for home and community-based services, and $15 million to address Maine’s troubled child welfare system.
The measure also contains funding to help the state’s broken defense system for low-income people by hiring 10 new public defenders — although it remains to be seen if that will be enough — $3 million to assist Maine communities in planning for climate change, and $6 million for the state to deal with the impacts of PFAS substances.
Mills announces new initiatives
Along with highlighting the details from her budget plan released in January, the governor also used Tuesday’s address to propose several new initiatives. On climate change, Mills said her administration will be putting forward a bill to require that 100% of Maine’s energy comes from clean energy sources by 2040, speeding up the timeline of the state’s push toward renewables. Mills said she expects 53% of Maine’s energy to be generated from renewables by the end of this year.
The governor also announced additional measures to combat the drug overdose epidemic. Maine in 2022 set a grim new record for the number of overdose deaths in a single year, with fatalities jumping 13% over the previous year. That comes as advocates have expressed worry that a hyper-focus on fentanyl — which the governor mentioned several times in her speech — misses the point and that policymakers instead should be moving to decriminalize substance use disorder to allow people to more easily access treatment.
Still, Mills did propose some concrete new policies, including increasing the supply of the opioid overdose reversal medication Naloxone — credited with saving myriad lives — by 25% across the state. Along with that, Mills proposed doubling the number of trained people who can respond with law enforcement to calls about substance use and help get people connected to treatment and pitched adding 140 residential treatment beds and detox beds.
“There was a lot in Gov. Janet Mills budget address tonight,” Courtney Gary-Allen of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project — a drug policy group — said on Twitter. “I’m excited about housing first, recovery coaches in [child protective services] and expanding family recovery courts. I have lots of questions about the rest of it but that can wait till tomorrow. We’ll take the wins tonight.”
Another prominent issue facing Maine is the affordable housing crisis. Advocates made the case last week for large-scale state investments to address the affordability issue at a public hearing before the legislature’s Select Committee on Housing, noting that people are getting desperate as prices soar.
Mills on Tuesday acknowledged the depths of the challenge. Along with the $30 million she pledged to address the issue, the governor backed a bill before the legislature that would put in place a housing first model aimed at keeping people in their homes and obtaining permanent supportive housing for those who are homeless.
“Under this legislation, Maine would provide permanent supportive housing for hundreds of Maine’s citizens, providing communities across Maine with a desperately needed resource to address chronic homelessness and reducing health care and public safety costs,” she said.
The governor also proposed further action to fix the state’s child welfare system by partnering with advocates to create a comprehensive plan on the issue, including placing experts on substance use disorder within every child welfare district in Maine, forming a recovery coach pilot program for parents, and expanding family recovery courts that work with children at risk because their families are dealing with substance use issues.
Budget landscape moving forward
Mills’ budget is supported by a state surplus, with the governor not proposing raising any taxes, even on the wealthy. That means the plan effectively leaves in place tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy passed under former Gov. Paul LePage, which have cost the state hundreds of millions in revenue.
Using the state’s unexpected fiscal strength as a justification, Republicans are pushing the idea that the recent trend of budget surpluses means Maine is collecting more than it needs and should therefore further cut taxes. But economists and some state lawmakers argue that it would be unwise to slash revenue now given an uncertain economy and the numerous unmet needs Mainers still have. Those include housing, health care, child care, and behavioral health services, among others.
Hearings on the governor’s budget plan will continue before various committees with jurisdiction over a variety of policy areas. While the governor still has influence over the measure, lawmakers now ultimately get to decide how to move the spending plan forward.
House Democrats reacted positively to the budget address in statements released Tuesday night, praising the proposal but also calling for the legislature to shape the plan to do even more to address needs such as housing and health care.
“As we consider this next budget, we must ask ourselves, what more can we do to ensure we are meeting the needs of all Maine families?” Speaker of the House Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) said. “I commend Governor Mills for her ongoing commitment to vital investments in housing and childcare, but as the legislature negotiates our final spending proposal we must meet Mainers in their communities to identify what more we can do.”
The Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) also praised the budget while calling for lawmakers to build on the plan by making additional investments in programs to help Maine people, such creating a paid family and medical leave policy and putting the state on a sound financial track moving forward by reforming the tax code to ensure corporations are paying their fair share.
“Lawmakers have a chance to do even more for Maine people and communities and should avoid any effort to compromise our capacity to address critical needs and help Mainers thrive now and in the future,” MECEP said in a statement.
With majorities in the House and Senate, Democratic lawmakers could choose to pass a spending plan that only needs to win the support of a majority of legislators, rather than a two-thirds margin. This would effectively allow for the budget to be approved without any Republican support, although Mills on Tuesday expressed her preference that the budget be bipartisan. Past budgets that Democrats have passed by relying on Republican votes have left out important progressive priorities that most in the GOP don’t support, such as full immigrant inclusion in health care and large-scale funding to tackle climate change, among other initiatives.
Passing a majority budget would require moving fast, however, as Democrats would have to approve the plan by the end of March to prevent a gap in state funding. That’s because a budget passed by a simple majority takes effect 90 days after approval while a two-thirds budget takes effect immediately.