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With rhetorical nods to Maine's past and future, Gov. Mills outlines 2nd term plans

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Rebecca Conley
/
Maine Public
Gov. Janet Mills speaks at her inauguration ceremony, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

In a thematic sense, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ second inaugural speech on Wednesday was a lot like her first at the Augusta Civic Center four years ago: An aspirational address marked by the governor’s affinity for rhetorical flourishes, local history and a tribute to her native state that two months ago delivered her more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in Maine history.

The speech was also front loaded with accomplishments and backfilled with a to-do list for her next four years in office.

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As is common in many inaugural addresses, Mills, all white in suffragette-style and wearing a pair of iconic “Bean Boots,” left out the details of how she plans to achieve an ambitious policy agenda with a notable shortage of easy solutions. Such specifics may come about a month from now when she unveils her two-year budget proposal. After all, the governor’s goals of tackling what she views as the state’s biggest challenges — climate change, workforce and housing shortages, health care access and the opioid crisis — will likely require funding.

At a glance, Mills appears to have advantages that will aid the advance of her policy platform, namely a legislature controlled by fellow Democrats and a resounding reelection victory that could be viewed as a voter mandate to at least continue the pursuits she initiated four years ago. However, her first term showed that unanimity with Democrats on big issues isn’t guaranteed. And, in the case of the budget, Mills won’t just need Democratic votes, but Republican ones, too (unless Democrats try to pass one along party lines in early spring to avoid the prospect of a government shutdown).

The governor seemed to acknowledge this challenge in her inaugural speech, framing the next four years as a moral call to action. She did so by using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which effectively allows scientists to see distant stars and galaxies as they appeared billions of years ago, as a rhetorical device.

“But what about our descendants, those generations yet to come – what might the telescope of the future reveal to them about who we are now and where we are going? Will it be good? Will they be proud of us?” Mills asked.

Using the prospect of future legacy as incentive to change the present isn’t necessarily a new tactic in politics. But on Wednesday, in front of a new legislature with many new leaders and new ambitions, the governor suggested that that’s how she’ll be approaching her second term.

“The charge, the responsibility we take up today, is to choose action over acquiescence and apathy, to make decisions grounded in experience with an eye to the future, and always to be a part of something larger than ourselves,” she said.

Heating bill now a law  

After a month-long delay, lawmakers passed a $473 million emergency spending bill on Wednesday that will put an extra $450 in most Mainers’ pockets this winter and will extend a temporary lifeline to individuals or families facing eviction.

Those $450 checks could start going out to about 880,000 Maine taxpayers (individuals making less than $100,000 and couples making less than $200,000) later this month. And the $71 million for lower-income Mainers in the form of home heating assistance and emergency housing will be available even sooner.

It’s highly unusual for the Legislature to pass an emergency spending bill of this size so quickly – in this case, on only the second day that the House and Senate met.

But that’s a month longer than Mills and most legislative leaders had wanted to wait given the high energy prices facing Mainers this winter. And how this all played out might foreshadow some of the political dynamics that lawmakers and the newly reelected Democratic governor could face as they debate longer-term fixes to such mammoth issues as Maine’s affordable housing crisis, soaring electricity costs, a worsening opioid epidemic, a failing criminal justice system and most Mainers’ reliance on fossil fuels to heat their homes.

At the very least, Senate Republicans’ ability to hit the brakes on the bill and secure a public hearing demonstrated that they don’t intend to be steamrolled by Mills or Democrats. They only hold 13 of the 35 Senate seats, but that’s enough to block passage of any bill (including a budget) requiring a super-majority. Same goes in the House.

Yet the final bill was exactly the same as the version as Senate Republicans temporarily blocked, thereby delaying its intended benefits for several weeks.

But Republican leader Sen. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said that hours-long public hearing highlighted the immense funding needs of nursing homes, group homes for individuals with disabilities and the people who work in these settings. And he said Republicans will continue to push for more action in the looming budget negotiations.

“This bill needs to pass – we’re at that point, it needs to pass,” said Stewart, who was one of three Republicans to support the bill on Wednesday. “There is allegedly going to be a negotiation that will begin as early as next week on the next things. We’ll move onto those. And again, we’ll be prioritizing those (issues) . . . because we have to do better as a state.”

The debate over the energy assistance bill also revealed a schism between the House and Senate Republican caucuses (or, perhaps, their leadership) on one key point. Multiple Senate Republicans were critical of the fact that households earning up to $200,000 a year would get relief checks. But House Republicans had insisted on those higher income levels in negotiations with Mills because they wanted to help more “middle-class” families.

Thirty-five House Republicans – just over half of the caucus – supported the emergency bill on Wednesday, compared to just one-quarter of Senate Republicans. Every Democrat in both chambers who was present on Wednesday voted for the bill.

A game-changing ally for Wabanaki tribes?

For the past several years efforts by Wabanaki tribes to overhaul the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act has mostly involved building support among Democratic lawmakers and aligned interest groups. Republican support, or even engagement on the issue, has been more limited.

But newly anointed GOP House leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, of Winter Harbor, this week signaled a change.

“There has been a communication barrier between the tribes and the Republicans in the past,” said Faulkingham during an event hosted by the Wabanaki Alliance the day before Inauguration Day. “There's a large contingent of my caucus here tonight, and I just want you to know that that communication barrier is torn down."

He added, “When I hear things like equality, self-reliance, sovereignty, those are words that speak to the values of what it means to me to be a Republican.”

Faulkingham’s comments came during the same event attended by Democratic House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Senate President Troy Jackson, both of whom supported a sweeping tribal sovereignty bill that the governor stalled last year by threatening to veto it. Had Mills followed through on that threat, it’s likely Republican lawmakers would have helped sustain her veto because there were not enough Democrats to override it (There still aren’t). Faulkingham was among the Republicans who opposed the measure and Rep. Tom Martin, of Greene, was the only GOP House member to support it.

To be clear, Faulkingham did not make any promises to support another tribal sovereignty bill, and so far, it’s not certain that the Wabanaki tribes will push a similar bill during this session. Talbot Ross, who was the lead sponsor of last year’s sovereignty bill, said in a recent interview that it’s entirely up to tribal leaders to decide how to proceed.

However, Faulkingham’s willingness to engage the tribes on overhauling parts of the settlement agreement could be a game-changer for their efforts, especially if he can convince members of his caucus to follow him.

That’s the hope of tribal leaders, who have already indicated that working with Republicans is a focus of their legislative efforts this year.

Looking ahead 

The Legislature will slowly ramp up in the coming weeks as bills are printed and the committees begin to meet.

There’s not much on the agenda for next week. And as mentioned above, many of the major issues will require substantial investments from the state. So we can expect those discussions to intertwine with negotiations over a new, two-year budget starting in February.

But here is a recap of some of the key issues facing lawmakers in the weeks and months ahead:

  • Housing: Homelessness is rising statewide, many emergency shelters are filled (particularly those for families) and assistance programs are reporting huge demand as Mainers struggle to keep up with soaring rents and housing prices. A special housing committee will attempt to tackle these issues.
  • Meeting Maine’s constitutional obligation to provide free, adequate legal representation to low-income criminal defendants. The indigent legal defense system has been bleeding lawyers and Maine’s chief justice says the state’s judicial system is in crisis.
  • Policies to lower electricity prices, including potential changes to solar energy incentives.
  • Continued work to improve state-tribal relations
  • Strengthening Maine’s child welfare programs in response to recent abuse-related deaths.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.