Recent headlines show that another nursing home has closed, the state is on its way to setting its fifth straight record for overdose deaths, school budget crunches abound, and Maine is now the worst state in the nation for child abuse and neglect. These are just a few of the enormous failures of state government since Janet Mills took office in January 2019. As these pile up with stunning regularity, it seems a good time to review some of the highest priorities that have become some of the biggest disappointments under Gov. Janet Mills.
In debates and regular campaign speeches in 2018, Mills promised voters that one of her top priorities would be to rebuild and reform the Department of Health and Human Services. The two largest issues facing this huge monolith of state government were the dangers facing Maine children and the ongoing menace of opioid drug addiction.
Early into her administration, Mills hired the failed former leader of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Nirav Shah, to head the Maine CDC. Introducing him to the Legislature via letter, new DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew cited Shah’s Illinois expertise in two areas when she wrote that “he implemented key initiatives to address the State’s opioid crisis, reduce maternal and infant mortality.”
Had she simply searched Shah’s name on the Web with the word “infants,” Lambrew would have seen the reporting on a seven months long investigation by the Chicago Tribune that included headlines such as “How Illinois bureaucracy robbed parents of a chance to save their children from a deadly disease,” and “Parents of dead, dying children blast Public Health director for newborn testing failure.”
As to his “expertise” on opioids, during a television interview at the start of his fourth year as Illinois Public Health Director, Shah explained that “in the past three years, deaths attributable to these fentanyl synthetics have gone from around ninety deaths to over 900, a ten-fold increase in just a few years.” This is the record that led Lambrew to choose Shah “following a national search.” Neither Mills nor Lambrew seem to have made any effort to conduct a thorough review of the candidate for this important position before hiring him.
This past week, the Maine Children’s Alliance release of this year’s Kid’s Count data book revealed that Maine has become the worst state in the nation for the abuse of children. During the eight years prior to Mills’ election, for example, Maine averaged 10.25 child fatalities annually. During Mills’ first three years in office, that number doubled to 20. In 2019, Mills’ first year as governor, Maine had a record 19 child fatalities. Two years later, this tragic number rose to a record 29 deaths. In June 2021, five Maine children under the age of five died over the span of just 24 days.
Though Maine experienced a 30 percent jump in the number of abused children since she took office, Mills made no effort to reach out to the Legislature to make changes to laws and policies that are sorely needed to save young lives. Instead, she resisted a bipartisan call for her to release DHHS records pertaining to child deaths, forcing the Legislature to file suit to gain access to them. She has also signaled opposition to bipartisan reform efforts that would make the Office of Child and Family Services a separate, cabinet-level agency.
Oddly, Mills’ deflected criticism of the report by blaming Maine’s drug addiction crisis, as if the other 49 states that are ranked ahead of Maine were not also dealing with this issue.
During her State of the Budget Address, Mills told Mainers that “we must acknowledge that the drug epidemic is jeopardizing the safety, security, and welfare of our youngest children.” Under her watch, however, Maine has set four consecutive annual records for drug overdose deaths, and it is on track to shatter the 2022 number in 2023. The overdose trendline points up even as the Mills Administration has made it easier than ever to get Narcan, the overdose reversal drug.
The most significant legal step that Mills and her Democratic allies in the Legislature have taken was to pass a party-line vote reducing the minimum charge for trafficking in fentanyl and other dangerous drugs, giving prosecutors more leeway to bring lesser charges to those carrying as much as a 1,000 lethal doses of fentanyl, for example.
When asked about the rampant drug overdose crisis in Maine during a debate in October of last year, the best response Mills could muster, despite ample time for debate prep, was to praise the state’s Department of Corrections for a program it had initiated.
Mills cited Maine’s “state prisons with the counseling and the medication assisted treatment that is going on for more than 2000 people who’ve been through the prison system and are in the prison system. Now I’m proud of Randy Liberty and our Department of Corrections for addressing addiction and substance use disorder in a progressive manner.”
This one response sums up Mills’ utter lack of managerial ability and knowledge of what is happening in state government. Not only is a small program in the prison system the best she could come up with in response to one of her greatest failures as governor, but she also seems oblivious to the fact that in 2022, Maine set a record for the largest number of deaths among incarcerated people in its history.
While regularly telling Mainers she was doing everything she could to reverse the opioid epidemic, Mills was signing multiple contracts for millions of dollars with the high-powered DC firm that developed the plan that foisted the crisis upon the nation. While a number of states, including Maine, were investigating the firm and then negotiating an agreement wherein it paid more than a half-billion dollar settlement, Mills was paying them millions in taxpayer dollars in a no-bid, sole source contract for what turned out to be no benefit to Maine.
In 2018, the last year before Mills took office, the U.S. Census reported that Maine was second best in the nation behind only California in the “Gender Wage Gap” (the difference in median income between men and women). Just two years later, however, Maine had fallen to 47th in the U.S., a remarkable plunge in just 24 months.
In a release on March 14, “National Equal Pay Day,” the Mills administration quoted Destie Hohman Sprague, Executive Director of the Maine Womens Lobby as saying,”the data is clear that women are actually losing ground in salary equity, not gaining it. The gender pay gap in Maine has increased since 2018, with women making on average almost $10,000 less per year than men – and that disparity is even higher for women of color and trans women.”
Despite repeated promises that the expansion of Medicaid to childless, fully abled adults would save Maine lives, it hasn’t. The mortality rate in Maine jumped by 6% during the first three years after expansion (pre-COVID) with hundreds more Mainers dying each year than before the expansion.
Another nursing home recently announced that it is closing, this one in Belfast, eliminating another 53 beds and putting 37 patients back into a system with virtually no available capacity. Of the 6,609 beds in Maine when COVID arrived, only 5,246 are currently occupied due to a lack of staffing caused in large part by the Governor’s healthcare vaccine mandate.
Last Thursday, Mills announced a $25 million investment in nursing homes. The majority of this latest cash does not come from the billions in additional General Fund money in the state budget, a source of funds that Mills has steadfastly refused to send to nursing homes since she took office. Also, this is a one-time payment that will do nothing to address the largest problem these facilities face, a shortage of staff due to a lack of ability to pay competitive wages.
If this money were only going to the nearly 11,000 people who staff Maine’s 89 remaining Medicaid funded nursing homes, this would amount to a temporary pay raise of just $1.09 per hour for each worker. However, despite the claim that the money was going to nursing homes, it is not entirely. The funds will be spread across “262 service locations” statewide.
With as straight a face as one can put forth in a press release, Mills is quoted as saying, “my administration will continue to work to ensure that high-quality, affordable long-term care is available for Maine people.”
Then there is Mills’ obsession with Maine’s nearly non-existent contribution to global climate change. In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the amount of energy-related CO2 emitted from Maine is equal to 13.5 mmt (million metric tons). According to the Final Report of the Governor’s Forest Carbon Task Force Maine’s forests sequester as much as 75% of Maine’s annual carbon emissions. Maine’s net, annual, energy-related CO2 emissions amount to 3.8 mmt. This represents .0008 of the total annual U.S. emissions of 4,592 mmt.
Apparently blissfully ignorant that her policies are contributing to the horrors endured by children in the Congo who mine the toxic mineral cobalt that is essential for green energy devices, Mills continues to push for more solar energy, electric vehicles, and the like. Her expansion of solar power in Maine has cost electricity ratepayers handsomely after years of denials that this would be the case. Instead, she blames skyrocketing electric rates on natural gas prices, apparently unaware that they are now at near record lows. In her haste to transform Maine’s electrical supply into the most expensive type of power, she either did not know or did not care that the solar panels for an array at the Augusta exits to I-95 were supplied by a company that uses forced labor in China in its manufacturing.
This past weekend, the Maine Sunday Telegram ran a story about how Maine cities and towns are facing historic property tax increases largely due to increased school funding. The story opens with the sentence, “School budgets tip the scales for municipalities trying to balance fiscal responsibilities without burdening residents.” In Westbrook, for example, “with school spending up by $3.2 million, residents could still see an 8.8% tax increase, the largest in the city’s history.” This despite Mills’ constant reference to her success in funding the state’s share of education spending at 55 percent, which may not have been the panacea she would have us believe.
Over and over we read stories in which Mills makes claims that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny, or voices “facts” that contradict what her departments put out in releases. For example, Mills repeatedly denied working to remove the Shawmut Dam that powers the SAPPI paper mill even while two of her departments were actively seeking to do just that. Then there is the disastrous vaccine mandate that has devastated healthcare in Maine which she justified using “science” that directly contradicted the U.S. CDC. Mills is still clinging bitterly to the vaccine mandate even though everyone now understands that the COVID-19 shots do not inhibit transmission of the virus and the U.S. Government is eliminating its mandates.
Worse, she takes actions without explanation that seem clearly the result of not performing basic background research before making decisions. It is apparent that Mills often has no idea what is going on in her own government, or she does not care—or both. The result is a series of rampant failures that lead to questions about whether any of her initiatives are worth pursuing while she is at the helm.