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The big issues Gov. Mills will sway, but didn’t mention during her budget speech

Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the Budget address, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ budget address on Tuesday was a sweeping and exhaustive public pitch for her $10.3 billion two-year spending plan that she bookended with a reference to ChatGPT and a quote from Yogi Berra.

“‘If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there,’” she said at the conclusion of her hourlong speech to a joint convention of the Legislature. “Well, we know where we are going and this budget is our blueprint to get there.”

Mills’ speech effectively outlined that blueprint, but she also unveiled enough nonbudget news that it could have been mistaken for a State of the State address, including reforms at the state’s child protection agency, an acceleration of renewable energy development, expansion of district court judgeships and opioid crisis initiatives.

But there were a few other hot topics that the governor did not mention despite her potentially pivotal role in the policy outcomes.

Paid family and medical leave was among them. Last week progressive activists launched their push for a law that would guarantee some workers access to paid time off to care for an ailing family member, or themselves, after an illness or injury. It’s expected to be a major policy debate during this legislative session, pitting Democratic-aligned interest groups against business organizations like the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. While acknowledging last week that PFML is an important debate, Mills gave no further clues about her position on Tuesday.

That was no doubt disappointing to progressive activists, who could launch a ballot initiative if the yet-to-be-unveiled legislative proposal falters. (And it looks like they’ll have more than enough campaign cash to do it. More on that below.) However, it also wasn’t surprising. There’s no specific legislation associated with PFML yet and Mills, who has tried not to alienate business groups, could play a role in shaping it.

The governor also did not mention income tax cuts during her budget address. The issue is a priority for Republican legislative leaders, who have framed it as a key consideration in voting for the next two-year budget.

“We’ll 100% support funds for things like nursing homes, money for the disabled, schools, roads, bridges and a safety net for Mainers,” House Minority Leader Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said after the budget address. “But what we’re concerned about is, as the governor stated tonight, the revenue is $1.2 billion above the baseline ... so we feel like pencils need to be sharpened a little bit here. And we’d like a reduction in this budget and a tax cut.”

Republicans have not yet released a proposal for tax or spending cuts. As with many potentially dicey budget initiatives, it’s possible one will emerge during negotiations with the Democrats who control the Legislature, as well as the governor.

Finally, Mills made no reference to the simmering debate over expanding the rights of Wabanaki tribes. She didn’t last year during her State of the State address, either. Yet the governor ultimately backed a proposal that gave the tribes exclusive rights to mobile sports betting and another that gave the Passamaquoddy Tribe more control over drinking water supplies. She also used her support of those proposals as leverage in blocking a more sweeping sovereignty bill.

It’s not yet clear what Wabanaki legislation interests the governor this year, if anything. But like PFML and tax cuts, the absence of the Wabanaki issue from the governor’s speech doesn’t mean she won’t be involved in determining its fate.

Heavy-hitters backing PFML

As previously noted, the push for PFML is working along two tracks. The first is in the Legislature. The second is a ballot initiative that will likely be launched if the legislative effort fails.

The ballot initiative headed by Mainers for Paid Family Leave is already in a formidable position thanks to $1.2 million in campaign cash. And, based on the source of those funds, there’s likely a lot more coming if the ballot initiative proceeds.

The lead funder for Mainers for Paid Family Leave is listed as the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive advocacy group with a successful track record of backing Democratic legislative candidates as well as passing referendums. However, documents from the Maine Ethics Commission show that well-heeled national groups backed by progressive megadonors are also investing in the effort.

Last summer the Maine People’s Alliance filed what’s known as a major contributor report, which is required when a group or person donates more than $100,000 to a ballot question committee or political action committee. One of those reports showed that the MPA donated $250,000 to Mainers for Paid Family Leave and that the source of the MPA’s funds is an array of national progressive advocacy groups, including People’s Action, Omidyar Network and the Sixteen Thirty Fund.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund has established itself as one of the most prolific progressive dark money organizations, pumping millions into congressional contests, including the 2020 Maine U.S. Senate race in which Republican Sen. Susan Collins defeated Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.

Renewable energy push

Mills did make some news during her speech with her proposal to speed up the already ambitious timeline for obtaining 100% of Maine’s electricity from renewable sources.

The question now is whether Republicans will go along during a session when high electricity rates, renewable energy policy and the nexus between those two issues will be major topics.

Within weeks of taking office four years ago, Mills sought to distinguish herself from former Gov. Paul LePage — a frequent critic and opponent of renewables such as wind and solar — by proposingthat Maine obtain all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050.

Those goals were later part of the “Maine Won’t Wait” plan put forward by the Maine Climate Change Council created by Mills and the Legislature.

Now Mills plans to introduce a bill to bump up that renewable target by a decade to 2040. Currently, about 48% of electricity used by Maine residents comes from renewable sources such as hydro, wind and solar.

“By accelerating our pace toward 100% clean energy, we will reduce costs for Maine people, create new jobs and career opportunities that strengthen our economy, and protect us from the ravages of climate change,” Mills said.

So far, Republican leaders have been chilly to the idea.

Faulkingham said immediately after the announcement that “you have to look out for the ratepayers – the people of Maine and the families and workers in Maine that have to pay the bill for those proposals.”

But he went further a day later, telling the Portland Press Herald that, “I think it’s a great idea if you hate poor people. Otherwise, coming up with arbitrary goals before affordable alternatives exist is dangerous.”

The reality is, however, that Mills and Democrats could pass a bill setting a new goal post without Republican support given the Democratic majorities in both chambers.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Mainers who received $850 pandemic/inflation relief checks from the state last year can rest easy: The IRS announced that recipients will not have to report those payments when filing their 2022 tax returns. The IRS has not yet weighed in on whether the $450 heating aid checks that Mainers are expected to receive soon will need to be reported on their 2023 returns. 
  • Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King is continuing his push for a united front in America and Europe as the Russian invasion of Ukraine reaches its one-year anniversary. King warned in a hearing this week that Russia’s best hope is to divide the West. 
  • Next week is school vacation week. That means legislative activity will slow down considerably. Only two committees — transportation and the budget writing committee — will hold hearings. There are no House or Senate sessions scheduled.
  • The Secretary of State’s Office is seeking comment on the wording on one of two complex, energy-related referendum questions likely to be on this November’s ballot. This question asks, ““Do you want to bar some kinds of quasi-governmental entities and consumer-owned utilities from taking on more than $1 billion in debt unless they get voter approval?” Central Maine Power’s parent company is bankrolling the initiative as a way to kneecap the other ballot question that aims to force CMP and Versant to sell their assets to such “quasi-governmental entities and consumer-owned utilities.”
  • A state lawmaker facing felony fraud charges pleaded not guilty during his arraignment in court on Thursday, according to the Bangor Daily News. Rep. Clinton Collamore, D-Waldoboro, is accused of forging signatures in order to qualify for public campaign funds. Collamore has previously not commented on the charges. House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, has asked for his resignation. The BDN also reported that he announced that he intended to resign. 

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

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.