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Mills Discusses Priorities Ahead Of First State Of The State Address

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, at the State House in Augusta.

Gov. Janet Mills is scheduled to deliver her first State of the State address to the Maine Legislature Tuesday night.

On the eve of her speech, Mills spoke with Maine Public senior political correspondent Mal Leary about her priorities in the coming year.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mills: You’re not gonna do major reforms in a short session of the Legislature, especially in an election year. There will be a fair amount of posturing, I’m sure, and a lot of people taking sides and positions and not wanting to come to the middle, but we’ll make things happen.

I think a couple things of some urgency have come to the public’s attention we want to address. The Child Welfare Ombudsman’s report from early this week points out that we’ve got more to do to protect our children. The public is keenly aware of the tragic, violent death of Marissa Kennedy and the shortcomings of the last few years in our child welfare system. We put money in the budget last year to add to the rolls of child welfare caseworkers and supervisors. I think we need to do more in that area.

In the area of public safety, there’s a need for more troopers. I’ve heard complaints from the counties that state police are cutting back on patrols in some areas because they did not get the added bodies they requested last year. So that’ll be something to look at.

And in the area of climate change, we’re not asking for appropriations for that, per se. But we’re still publicly asking people to seriously consider buying heat pumps, for instance, for their homes.

Leary: Last year, in your inaugural address, one of the things you talked about was improving Maine’s educational system, creating a world-class workforce. Those take time. Are we going to see further steps in this session to try to reach that goal?

Sure. First of all, I think the budget gave short shrift to higher education, ultimately, last year, and that was one of the shortcomings of the ultimate budget. And I’d like to see that reinstated, the funds for the second year of the biennium that were requested by our university system and our community college system. We asked for funds through bonding, among other things, to improve the workforce training curriculum. And I think that should be looked at carefully this year as well.

And I applaud the Association of Manufacturers for coughing up some of their own money to help train people to learn the trades. That’s extremely important too. But we have CTEs. We need equipment for those CTEs. That’s one of the things that, unfortunately, the Republicans as a caucus voted down last August, the proposed bond issue for money for equipment for the vocational tech schools. They desperately need that, they haven’t had funding for equipment for several decades. So that’s part of how we should address the workforce needs of our businesses.

One of your big goals you have accomplished, and that’s expanding Medicaid. Have we gone far enough in terms of providing coverage for Mainers who have problems paying for their health insurance?

No, we have not gone far enough. We’ve accomplished MaineCare expansion. As many as 57,000 people have had access to health care through the MaineCare expansion over the last 12 months. That’s an accomplishment. What I heard on the campaign trail as well, though, was small businesses and self-employed individuals having an awful time finding affordable health care. There are several ways we can look at that. And I want to take every reasonable measure to bring down the cost of health insurance for those struggling to provide jobs in this state, for those who are self employed, who don’t have transferable insurance, who aren’t in the big group plans that we offer at the state level that are regulated by the federal government.

At the state level, we can do something to address small-group insurance, and the individual market. We propose to do that by the bill just submitted last week, LD 2007, which would do three things, without any taxpayer dollars — not asking for appropriations for this at all. One is to start up a state-based market, health care exchange, based on the federal platform, which means we don’t reinvent the wheel. We use what the federal government has got there now, but we take some of the monies that are now being taken from insurance companies and diverted to the federal government. We take that some of that money instead and develop our own platform based on what the needs of Maine people are.

You created a new Office of Innovation and the Future to look at long-term plans. Are we going to see any legislation from that this year or is it still a work in progress?

They’re looking at so many different things, from the children’s cabinet to the Climate Change Council, which is looking at heating resources, transportation resiliency. They’re busy at work, I don’t know that they’re going to have a work product that is teed up for legislation right now. The economic plan will focus on some short-term and long-range goals. As you know, Commissioner Heather Johnson and her people took ideas from more than 1,300 people all across the state.

Mills’ State of the State address to the Legislature will be delivered at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Listen on Maine Public Radio, watch on Maine Public Television or stream at mainepublic.org.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.