A little over one year into her tenure as governor, Janet Mills is responsible for an explosion of new spending in Augusta. In 2019, lawmakers approved, and Governor Mills signed, a $7.9 billion biennial budget that represents an increase of nearly $800 million in spending over the last budget.
The final spending figure on which lawmakers settled was only slightly less than what the governor first proposed. Her initial proposal called for an enormous growth of government, throwing money at many departments and agencies without real purpose. The proposal called for a $324 million increase to the Department of Education, $290 million to the Department of Health and Human Services, and nearly $40 million to the Office of the State Treasurer.
Among the funds earmarked for the DOE, $88 million was to be spent on teacher retirement costs, $7 million to establish a universal pre-k program, $10 million to increase teachers’ starting salaries, and an additional $126 million for K-12 education costs.
A primary driver of DHHS spending growth was the governor’s decision to expand Medicaid to childless, able-bodied working age adults. Instead of taking care of truly disabled and vulnerable Mainers by eliminating waitlists under the traditional Medicaid (MaineCare) program, the governor opted to spend an additional $120 million expanding Medicaid to those who have the means to care for themselves.
Then, as we got closer to the start of the second session, the public focus shifts to a $232 million annual transportation funding shortfall that was not addressed in the biennial budget. The governor’s plan to fix our roads and bridges is borrowing $100 million annually, which still leaves the full funding shortfall intact.
A transportation commission was established to formulate long-term funding solutions, though its work appears to have stalled out. According to the Bangor Daily News, members of the committee set a goal of finding $160 million to plug the gap. This could be accomplished by shifting vehicle-related sales tax revenues from the General Fund to the Transportation Fund. However, this move requires cutting programs and services currently funded through the General Fund, an idea Democrats and the governor are unlikely to endorse.
The only other solution being tossed around is a gas tax increase, an issue on which Republicans appear to be divided. Sen. Matt Pouliot told the BDN he does not support increasing the gas tax, but Sen. Brad Farrin and Rep. Tom Martin said they support a funding solution that includes a gas tax increase, noting that the increased gas tax would be paid by tourists as well.
In her recent supplemental budget proposal, Governor Mills dedicated only $10 million of a $120 million surplus to maintaining our infrastructure. This is a wholly inadequate funding solution.
There is no legitimate need or reason to increase the gas tax on hardworking Mainers. While the increased tax will be paid by tourists driving through Maine, the primary burden will be placed on Maine motorists who travel each day to go to work, bring their kids to school or run errands.
There was plenty of money available to eliminate the funding shortfall when lawmakers were debating the biennial budget, and the gap could still be closed by shifting funds, making tough choices and exercising fiscal responsibility. Tax increases are not necessary.
Instead of solving the real problems facing our state, Governor Mills went on a spending spree without setting priorities, and now she’s running out of money to do the work she should have completed during biennial budget negotiations.