State of the state speeches can be difficult to write, and frankly, to watch. They are rarely inspiring, and often sound like laundry lists or self-congratulatory chronicles.
Gov. Janet Mills’ first State of the State address, given Tuesday night, was no different.
The governor spoke of the many things that her administration (and the Legislature) have already accomplished — and it is an impressive list — including expanding Medicaid health coverage to more than 50,000 Mainers, enacting paid leave and red flag laws, and improving tribal-state relations.
She then pivoted to the list of tasks ahead — hiring even more child welfare case workers, increasing off-shore wind energy, increasing funding for land conservation and career/technical training, improving survivor benefits for first-responders, and others. As with governors before her, Mills offered a long list of priorities, but relatively few details, including how they would be paid for, leaving the hard decisions — and potentially divisive debate — for later this year.
“We have an ambitious agenda,” the governor said to the audience assembled in the Maine House chamber. “There will be people who say, ‘We can’t do all of this now. Government should do less, not more.
“Building a health care system, saving people from the opioid epidemic, fighting child abuse and domestic violence, confronting climate change, strengthening education and improving our workforce — Is this too much to ask?,” Mills said.
She responded to the rhetorical question with a signature (if overused) line from the speech: “We can do these things. We are not Washington. We are Maine.”
Thankfully, Mills’ speech was free of the threats and insults that were hallmarks of former Gov. Paul LePage’s annual addresses to lawmakers and the people of Maine. Mills’ positive, optimistic and cooperative approach has already paid dividends for Maine as lawmakers have enacted important reforms and policies in areas as diverse as renewable energy, health care, education, and substance use disorder, among others.
But, Mills missed important opportunities Tuesday night to reach out to Republican lawmakers. For example, she did not acknowledge their initial role in the $75 million in property tax relief that is currently going to taxpayers.
Although Democrats have majorities in both the state Senate and House, working with Republicans can improve and broaden support for policies that are passed by the Legislature. We would have liked to see more concrete policy olive branches from Mills, like her willingness to use “some general fund dollars” for road infrastructure funding, to build on her speech’s sweeping rhetoric of cooperation.
One vague proposal, around utility regulation, cried out for more explanation. Utilities here, the governor said, must be answerable to the people of Maine, not to Spain or another foreign country. This was a clear shot at the state’s largest electric utility, Central Maine Power Co., which is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish company. It is not clear how this impacts her support for CMP’s proposed transmission line, if at all.
The governor is right that few are happy with the current regulatory framework that guarantees utilities a profit but offers “little degree of benefit to the public.” But changing that framework would be a complex endeavor requiring the guidance that Mills said she is seeking.
Mills appropriately tempered her remarks with frequent reminders that while Maine’s future is bright, there are many reasons for caution, especially on the economic front, where downturns are predicted.
The Pine Tree State will weather such challenges, the governor said, with the resilience and resourcefulness that have defined Maine for its 200 years of statehood.