AUGUSTA, Maine — High-profile bills ranging from recycling to taxes face uncertain fates as Gov. Janet Mills stays away from late discussions with the Legislature, setting her up for a crash course with normal allies in the 2021 session’s homestretch.
The governor opened her tenure by implementing Medicaid expansion, prioritizing climate policy and bypassed Republicans earlier this year to sign the first two-year budget passed with a simple majority since 2005. But she has bucked some in her party with a 2018 campaign promise to not raise taxes and by not embracing many criminal justice reform proposals.
Fellow Democrats in the Legislature have been bucking Mills on all of that and more this year. Many bills opposed by the governor have gotten favorable committee votes. They will bring showdowns between Mills and her party as the lawmakers aim to wrap up work this month but are increasingly likely to work through a Wednesday deadline.
The governor’s style and the COVID-19 pandemic have made for a chaotic finish. Mills’ tendency to stay out of legislative fights until the last minute is causing frustration in a session that has led lawmakers to vote on bills in marathon spurts. Remaining work will include thorny discussions on Mills’ new $8.8 billion budget and her plan for $1.1 billion in federal aid.
“There has not been as much communication as I would wish, but I trust that the governor will have trust in the work of the Legislature,” said Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, the progressive labor committee co-chair.
Mills, who grew up in a prominent political family and has spent most of her career in public office, has been known as a dealmaker. She brokered grand bargains to replace more sweeping red flag and paid leave proposals during her first year in office. Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, said the governor has worked closely with him on a massive broadband bond proposal.
But her administration has wavered on a first-in-the-nation bill sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, and backed by Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, that would charge producers of packaging products for the costs of recycling or disposing of that material, using the money to fund municipal recycling programs. The bill has faced heavy opposition from the business lobby, which argues that it will increase costs of essential goods, including groceries.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection initially gave neutral but skeptical testimony on the measure. After a legislative panel made changes last month including a temporary exemption for businesses under $5 million in annual revenue, Commissioner Melanie Loyzim told Bennett in a hearing that she thought Mills would sign the bill but could not promise it.
It is far from guaranteed. On Friday, department spokesperson David Madore called Loyzim’s comments an “on-the-spot response to those amendments.” He said the Mills administration “continues to have concerns” about how the bill handles disposal costs, “among other things.”
That was news to Bennett, who took Loyzim’s comments to be supportive after working on the bill with Grohoski. He had not heard anything from the department about the bill until informed of Madore’s comments on Friday and had not heard much discussion of it, except for a press conference held by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce against the bill earlier this week.
“At this point, the governor and the administration owes some clarity to the legislative branch on exactly what their concerns are,” he said.
Some pointed to the pandemic-altered session creating disconnect and making brokering deals much more challenging. Andrew Hackman, a lobbyist with a national firm working on behalf of a client opposing the packaging bill, said it has “definitely been harder to touch base with folks.”
Other measures that could prompt fights with Mills include one to establish a consumer-owned utility to buy out Central Maine Power and Versant Power and a Sylvester proposal to impose a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000 to increase Maine’s earned income tax credit.
While the governor has supported CMP’s controversial corridor proposal, she did not state a position on the utility overhaul until after it cleared a legislative committee this month. In a Maine Public interview, she warned the Legislature from sending the bill to voters “sight unseen.” That proposal is expected to face its first vote early this week, but a Mills veto would likely doom it.
Mills’ style has always been to wait on important topics before weighing in, said Jim Mitchell, a top Democratic lobbyist and Mills ally who represents CMP. He said that approach has been apparent since her time as a lawmaker and a prosecutor, and represents respect for the Legislature’s process rather than trying to micromanage it.
Mills did not take questions from reporters at events this week and declined to say whether she would veto bills she is opposed to through Lindsay Crete, her spokesperson, who said the number of bills introduced this session presented challenges to the administration.
The governor has read the “vast majority” and directed her administration to work with committees, but she will wait until the final product before passing judgment and uses her veto only as “an option of last resort,” Crete said.
Some lawmakers are undaunted by state opposition. Freshman Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, said he did not try to work with the Mills administration on his bill to close Maine’s only youth prison, which cleared the House in an initial vote on Thursday. When asked about a potential veto, he expressed hope that the governor would change her mind.
“I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.