Gov. Janet Mills made the case for her $10.3 billion biennial budget – almost one billion dollars and more than a ten-percent increase over the last two-year state spending package in 2021 — in an address Tuesday night to a joint session of the State Legislature.
“The foundations of our economy are our people, and that is why we have to invest in people,” Mills said.
Before listing a litany of spending priorities she urged lawmakers to support, Mills said the state’s revenue projections are in excess of $11 billion over the next two years.
When her budget was unveiled last month, Republican Senate Leader Sen. Trey Stewart (R-Aroostook) questioned why if there is a surplus the state continued to overtax Maine citizens.
While Mills said the state of the budget is strong, she also acknowledged that high prices and labor shortage are dragging on Maine’s economy.
Yet she cited figures about shrinking unemployment without addressing the costs heavy state regulation has on business in Maine or the all-time low labor force participation rate.
She is asking for an additional $100 million to maintain the 55% funding of public school education. In addition, she wants to continue two years of free community college – (though she did not note the program doesn’t require recipients to have completed Maine high schools or be from the state), and a program to expand school lunch to ensure no child goes home hungry, she said.
Hailing the impacts of past spending, Mills pointed to how the expansion of MaineCare in recent years reduced the rate of the uninsured from 9.9 to 5.7 percent. There was little mention in the address about the fiscal crisis threatening rural hospitals throughout the state.
In other big-ticket items, Mills called for the largest transportation spending increase in history, staking $400 million of state funds in order to tap into “hundreds of millions” of dollars of federal spending.
100 percent of Maine energy will have to come from clean sources by 2040, she pledged. That’s a major shift in short order considering more than 60 percent of Mainers rely on oil to heat their homes.
She’s asked for $30 million for new housing and said she would back the Housing First model for addressing homelessness in the state.
The governor proposed four district court judgeships and an additional $50 million for courts. She did not mention that her fellow Democrats in the legislature have proposed legislation getting rid of residency requirements for judges. Sen. Rick Bennett (R-Oxford) wrote on Facebook that if this measure were to pass, his county might never see a local judge again.
As predicted, Republicans balked at the uptick in spending.
“Here’s what worries me,” Faulkingham said in a prepared response, “There are too many people down here who think that doing great things means spending more money – a lot MORE money. Even if it means breaking a promise made to the people of Maine a few years back that we won’t spend beyond our means.”
Stewart was similarly skeptical.
“Maine must be a place where Maine people can afford to live, work, raise a family and retire. And this budget moves us in the wrong direction for that dream,” he said.
Both minority leaders see tax cuts as a preferable means of “investing in people.”
With minorities in both the House and the Senate, Republicans will have little leverage. However, Maine governors and lawmakers traditional seek to pass budgets with bipartisan support, and some Democrats have signaled an interest in using surplus revenues to limit taxes, especially for lower income Mainers.