Pulse Newsletter: Mills Makes History By Committing To Fully Fund Education
In this week’s newsletter: The governor’s historic education funding proposal; the Maine State Chamber of Commerce organizes anti-public power group; pandemic-induced gas tax losses; the anti-vax side hustle; no more guests for a GOP state lawmaker; and the national media’s obsession with Jared Golden’s tattoos.
Gov. Janet Mills sounded almost triumphant when she announced a change to the state’s next two-year budget that will pump an additional $187 million into local schools.
"I think it's a mission accomplished for the state of Maine that we've finally reached that goal," she said. "We've tinkered with it for years and we've never gotten close. And we're not only close today, we've gotten there."
Mills, a Democrat, was referencing a 17-year-old mandate from voters that the state fund 55% of local school costs. Mills is correct that the state has never met that mandate. She’s also correct that it’s never really been close.
However, the 55% threshold has long been the subject of debate because some Republicans have never been convinced that more money in local school districts improves education outcomes. That debate could resurface again as budget writers in the Legislature begin combing through the governor’s budget proposal that could bring the state’s two-year spending plan to $8.8 billion.
Republican lawmakers largely held their fire in responding to the governor’s plan. However, there’s no doubt that they’ll be pushing tax cuts as a counterproposal.
Mills, for her part, is framing the local education funding, and $80.2 million in increased revenue sharing to municipalities, as tax relief.
"Funding for General Purpose Aid for education will go to two places, your kid's classroom and your own pocketbook because it helps hold down property taxes dedicated to education," she said Wednesday.
While it’s true that the majority of municipal budgets go toward local education costs, there’s no guarantee that cities and towns will suddenly hack property taxes because of the additional slug of school and revenue sharing funding. In a statement, House Republican leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, appeared to reference that reality when she advocated for more tax relief directly to Maine residents.
“Every Mainer has been impacted by the pandemic over the last 14 months,” Dillingham said. “Meaningful income and property tax relief is achievable due to the substantial federal relief that is flowing into Maine. The more that can be directed to Maine citizens, the more quickly our economy will recover and add jobs.”
Mills’ budget change does include $22.3 million in direct property tax relief to elderly, low- and middle-income homeowners and renters. In addition to expanding eligibility for the Property Tax Fairness Credit, the governor’s proposal also increases the benefit amount, from $750 to $1,000 for nonelderly filers and from $1,200 to $1,500 for elderly filers.
It’s possible Republicans will push for more. They might also balk at spending initiatives that are floating on a healthy infusion of one-time federal funding made available through the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan. Mills’ proposal isn’t solely reliant on that federal funding — revenue forecasts are far better than anticipated than a year ago. But there’s no doubt the federal funding is powering many of the governor’s spending initiatives.
Mills doesn’t necessarily need Republican votes to see her education funding threshold of 55% come to fruition before the end of the legislative session; Democrats control the Legislature and they’ve already shown a willingness to flex their majority when they passed a baseline budget in March. However, the governor may have to convince the public that the historic boost in education funding isn’t a one-off that could be dialed back if the state’s economy doesn’t continue to grow, or when the one-time federal aid disappears.
Chamber creates anti-public power group
A new group has emerged to oppose a long ballyhooed effort to create a consumer-owned utility company that would replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power.
The proposal, printed and referenced as a new bill on Thursday, would essentially create a nonprofit and oust Maine’s two electricity providers. Under the bill, the Legislature would get a crack at passing the proposal before voters have the final say — potentially as soon as this November if lawmakers act on the bill before the end of the legislative session.
The bill has bipartisan backing in the Legislature, although it’s not yet clear if it has majority support in either the House or Senate.
It goes without saying that CMP and Versant are fiercely opposed to the proposal. The Maine State Chamber of Commerce is also against the initiative, and it appears to be using the new Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, or MAEC, as a way to wage a public relations campaign to oppose it.
The MAEC appears to be similar in function to the Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs, an affiliate of the state chamber that is working to oppose legislative and referendum efforts to scuttle CMP’s controversial transmission project.
The clean energy jobs group has been able to receive undisclosed donations legally funneled through the state chamber. The chamber has declined to say how much it has received from CMP.
Willy Ritch, with the new MAEC, confirmed Thursday that his group is “a project of the Maine State Chamber.”
Its first news release focused on a report finding that the consumer-owned power initiative would be costly and lead to electricity rate increases.
Pandemic siphons gas tax
Ever since the pandemic began, reporters and researchers have been trying to find ways to quantify how much in-state travel has declined. Last year, some third-party sources and the state used cellphone data to get a sense of whether Maine drivers were staying off the road.
Here’s another metric: $18 million.
That’s how much money Mills’ “second budget” proposal released this week would transfer from the state’s general fund to the highway fund. The initiative is meant to partially backfill revenue losses in the highway fund occurring during the past year, which according to the Mills administration, were primarily driven by declines in gas tax revenues during the pandemic.
Roughly two-thirds of the state’s highway fund is made up of gas tax revenue, a reliance that has previously created problems when the Maine Department of Transportation attempted to pay for the upkeep and new construction of roads and bridges because of increasingly fuel efficient cars, electric vehicles and a decision in 2011 by the Republican-controlled Legislature to freeze inflation indexing. The indexing freeze resulted in a state gas tax that hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade (Maine’s gasoline tax ranks in the middle of the country and slightly below the U.S. average, according to the American Petroleum Institute).
It’s not entirely clear exactly how much of the $18 million shortfall in the highway fund is a direct result of a dropoff in driving during the pandemic or the trending decline in gas tax revenues.
Either way, the shortfall isn’t just a state problem, but also a local one. That’s because declining gas tax revenues also affect municipalities relying on the Local Road Assistance Program to pay for upgrades on local roads that the state doesn’t maintain.
Roughly 9% of the highway budget goes to the Local Road Assistance Program.
Anti-vax side hustle
The proliferation of anti-vaccination disinformation and misinformation during the pandemic is churning up scrutiny of the motives. While there are people who have genuine fears of vaccines, there are also those who profit from spreading disproven information about the COVID vaccines, and before that, inoculations that have become relatively standard.
The profits don’t always come from the spreading of wild claims on social media, but also by parlaying vaccine skepticism into consumer interest in the largely unregulated dietary supplements industry.
This week NPR focused on this anti-vax side hustle for the most prolific purveyors of disproven information.
Sayer Ji, a self-described proponent of natural medicine, is a central figure in the NPR story. Ji is among the “disinformation dozen” cited by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Yarmouth Dr. Christiane Northrup, whose extreme vaccination views were recently chronicled in the Maine Sunday Telegram, is also on the “disinformation dozen” list.
According to her website, Northrup also has some recommended supplements. Some of them purport to have antiviral properties, such as zinc and pico silver.
It’s not clear how much Northrup earns from the sales of these products, but she has a signature line available through Amata Life, a company selling through — and in some cases recommended by — Amazon.
Last year the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission warned several companies selling supplements to back off claims that their products were of any use in treating or preventing COVID-19.
Some supplement peddlers have kept their claims generic to avoid sanctions by authorities. However, when paired with disinformation, the vague “antiviral” claims of, say, pico silver may seem appealing to the vaccine hesitant. And that’s the point.
“One of the things that antivaxxers have to do to sell their own remedies... is to persuade people not to trust authorities they've trusted in the past,” Imran Ahmed, with the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit group that tracks anti-vaccination misinformation, told NPR.
It’s big business, too.
Before the pandemic, the Washington Post published a story about Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician who has pumped millions into anti-vaccination efforts while earning hundreds of millions through the sale of his supplement products.
Mercola’s products are offered on the website of the Organic Consumers Association, the same group that pumped $50,000 into an unsuccessful Maine ballot campaign to overturn new vaccine mandates for schoolkids.
ICYMI: No more guests for GOP legislator
A Republican state legislator has been sanctioned by Democratic legislative leaders after escorting anti-vaccination advocate Naomi Wolf and a cameraman into the State House and attempting to gain an audience with the governor two weeks ago.
As reported in the Pulse last week, Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield, brought Wolf and the cameraman into the State House as guests on April 28, the same day Wolf appeared alongside other GOP state lawmakers at a rally against vaccine passports, mask mandates and other measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The trio tried to get an unscheduled meeting with the governor, but were asked to leave by Mills Chief of Staff Jeremy Kennedy and escorted out of the building by Suzane Gresser, the Legislature’s executive director.
Shortly after that encounter, the legislative council, made up of the 10 members of legislative leadership, voted 6-4 to indefinitely rescind Rudnicki’s guest privileges. Under the Legislature’s COVID rules, lawmakers are allowed two constituent guests into the State House, which has been closed to the public during the pandemic. The council’s decision, which was opposed by the four Republican members, states that Rudnicki violated the guest policy in part by seeking access to the governor’s office.
Golden’s tattoos > King’s stache?
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden has been getting a fair amount of national press for winning reelection in a Trump-heavy district when other Democrats in similar districts fell last year, and also for bucking his party, most recently when he voted against the American Rescue Plan.
There also seems to be an ongoing fixation with his tattoos.
“The tattooed former Marine is willing to challenge party convention at a time when his single vote couldn’t be more valuable to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's narrow majority.” — POLITICO
“A tattooed former Marine infantryman who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Golden has cut a low profile in Washington but pounded the pavement of his sprawling, largely rural district that covers four-fifths of the state.” — The New York Times
“Under his flannel shirtsleeves are some serious tattoos, acquired during his stint as a Marine infantryman with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan." — NPR
To be fair, Golden himself is not bashful about sporting his ink, which has been featured in his campaign media and advertisements.
It’s still unclear, however, whether Golden’s tattoos will continue to garner as much interest as U.S. Sen. Angus King’s mustache has.
Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.