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Janet Mills proposes $850 direct payments as Maine's estimated surplus balloons to $1.2 billion

In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills is upping the ante on an earlier proposal to return excess state revenues directly to taxpayers, in the form of an $850 "relief" payments for qualified taxpayers. And she's proposing one-time, multimillion dollar boosts in a dozen other state programs.

State forecasters recently raised their estimate of a budget surplus for the coming year to more than $1.2 billion, and Mills wants to give half of it back to taxpayers. In an interview, she listed pressures that are hitting Mainers' wallets, starting with the war in Ukraine.

"We haven't seen world events like that that have a significant and immediate impact on everything from the price of milk and gas to supply chain issues that were already in play because of the pandemic," Mills said. "We're still seeing the effects of the pandemic when it comes to inflation and supply issues, the cost of construction and whatnot. And now the Federal Reserve Bank has said they are going to gradually increase interest rates."

Mills said the benefit should reach more than 800,000 Mainers, with the average Maine household receiving a total of $1,700 back.

Her proposal also includes $60 million to capitalize a fund to help farmers whose properties are contaminated by PFAS “forever” chemicals.

Still under consideration in the Legislature, the initiative could include funding for monitoring and assessment, human health, and the purchase and sale of contaminated land.

And Mills wants to add $100 million for "shovel ready" Maine DOT road and bridge projects, she said. That's about a tenth of the DOT's entire budget — including federal funds — and Mills says it's a chance to quickly get needed work done, without the costly process of floating and paying interest on public bonds.

A DOT spokesman calls it an "unprecedented" level of general fund support for direct infrastructure investment.

The governor's change package includes tens of millions more in funding for other programs, from housing for the unsheltered and behavioral health services to higher education Opportunity Maine tax credits and state legal expenses for defending the lobster industry against what she and lobstermen consider unwarranted new federal regulations.

In the Legislature, meanwhile, Republicans on Friday tried to get $850 relief payments to taxpayers more quickly, rather than waiting for final consideration of next fiscal year's overall state budget. Majority Democrats on the Appropriations Committee tabled that effort.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.