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Mills Proposes Budget Plan That Targets Health Care, Education, Property Taxes

Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills unveils her $8 billion, two-year budget that prioritizes health care, education and opioid crisis funding, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 at the State House.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is prioritizing health care, education funding and the opioid crisis in her first two-year spending plan, a sprawling policy document totalling $8 billion over a biennium that begins July 1.Mills’s proposal represents an 11 percent increase over the current budget that ends June 30, an increase that Republican lawmakers quickly criticized as unsustainable over the longterm because it relies on forecasted revenues that could decline in the event of an economic downturn. 

The plan, which must win legislative approval and will likely undergo significant revisions, also includes $150 million to pay for the state’s share of Medicaid expansion approved by voters in 2017, but  never implemented under Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Other budget initiatives include increased spending, $5.5 million, to address the opioid crisis and also more funding to the University of Maine and Community College systems.

And, as she promised during her campaign, Mills’s spending plan does not appear to raise taxes.

“This budget honors the demands of Maine people who have voted again and again for more health care, not less; for investments in education and our classrooms, not cuts; for better roads, lower property taxes, treatment for their loved ones suffering from substance use disorder, and for a state that believes everybody should have a fair shot at a better life,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “This budget represents a responsible, pragmatic approach that advances our goals while living within our means.”

Mills proposes using existing funds within the state’s Medicaid account to fund the state’s share of the voter-approved expansion, which independent analysts have pegged between $110-$150 million over two years.

The governor is also using a reserve account within the program in the event that the current funds are not sufficient to cover the roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers who could could qualify for coverage under Medicaid, or MaineCare as it’s known in Maine.

The proposal also includes $126 million in additional local education funding, a boost that Mills says will get the state share to over 50 percent of local education costs. That percentage is less than the 55 percent requirement voters approved several years ago, yet has never been met.

The budget also includes recruitment and retention funding for teachers, and, she says, ensures that no public school teacher will earn less than $40,000 a year. Republicans say the proposal is an unfunded mandate for cities and towns that could force them to increase local property taxes to meet it.

On the property tax front, Mills says her budget increases state revenue sharing to municipalities each year over the biennium, but appears to fall short of the 5 percent restoration sought by some Democratic lawmakers in separate legislation.

Mills unveiled a 57-page outline of the proposal during a press briefing on Friday. The full budget document was not immediately made available, but by law is required by midnight. Republicans said they wanted to see the full document to better understand how the governor plans to achieve her initiatives, but they said there was ample evidence that the plan is relies too heavily on one-time money.

"In a word our reaction is: unsustainable," said Sen. James Hamper, R-Oxford. 

Hamper and his Republican colleagues said they hoped to negotiate the spending plan downward, but added that lawmakers typically add more spending once the budget negotiations begin. 

"All we ask for is a seat at the table," said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, the assistant Republican minority leader.

Democratic leaders applauded Mills's proposal.

“Governor Mills’ budget demonstrates her clear commitment to making progress for Maine families, while working to rebuild state government. I look forward to carefully reviewing the details of this budget knowing that House Democrats and I will remain laser focused on giving our children an excellent education from early childhood onwards, increasing access to affordable and accessible healthcare, making smart investments in broadband infrastructure and lowering property taxes," House Speaker Sara Gideon said in a statement. 

Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in a statement that the Mainers "are looking to state leaders and lawmakers alike to make it a little easier to live, work, raise a family and quite frankly just get by. The governor’s budget proposal marks the start of a long but important process. I look forward to working with the Mills Administration in the upcoming months." 

Mills will present the budget proposal to a joint convention of the Legislature on Monday.

Originally published 1:14 p.m. Feb. 8, 2019