Maine Gov. Janet Mills greets the Legislature before delivering her State of the State Address from the Maine State House on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. Credit: Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald via AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Continuing to benefit from a windfall of federal aid in an election year, Gov. Janet Mills used her State of the State address on Thursday to meet a key demand from legislative Republicans for $500 relief checks to most Mainers.

In her first in-person address to lawmakers in nearly two years, the Democratic governor outlined the large parts of an upcoming spending plan that will make use of the state’s $800 million estimated surplus through mid-2023. Unveiled items added at least $500 million in spending.

Though Mills did not mention electoral politics, her speech was best viewed as a kickoff to her November campaign with former Gov. Paul LePage. She preceded it with a monthslong drip-drip of items to appear in her spending plan. New initiatives in her Thursday speech looked like a finely tuned effort to tamp down consistent criticism from Republicans on that subject.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the biggest sticking points between Mills and legislative Republicans, who criticized her early-pandemic business restrictions and vaccine mandate for health care workers. She called her in-person address part of “a march towards normalcy and stability,” and highlighted an increased focus on recommendations over mandates.

“Today, we focus not on telling people what they cannot do,” she said in an hour-long address. “We focus on telling people what they can and should do.”

If approved by the Legislature, the $500 relief checks would go to 800,000 Mainers at a total cost of $411 million, though the governor’s office did not immediately outline eligibility. Mills is proposing $20 million to fund two years of free community college for Mainers graduating high school between 2020 and 2023, plus tens of millions more for struggling hospitals, nursing homes and child care providers. All of those proposals should be popular in Augusta.

It does not mean legislative negotiations over how to spend Maine’s surplus will be easy. Republicans may look to float permanent income tax cuts as LePage targets the tax for elimination. Democrats who control Augusta but are still reeling after the governor vetoed several progressive bills, are expected to nudge Mills from the left.

Republicans have criticized Democrats for sharply raising state spending during their three years in control of Augusta, arguing that billions in federal aid — which LePage called “funny money” in a statement — has bailed Mills out. The incumbent has traveled the state for much of the last year selling spending plans and put a record $500 million in the state’s rainy day fund.

Top legislative Republicans welcomed the relief payments but noted high inflation and energy prices as a mitigating factor. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, cited Mills’ overly “rosy” portrait of state affairs amid trouble with the child welfare system.

“It’s going to be some help, but it’s not going to be enough,” said Rep. Joshua Morris, R-Turner, on Mills’ relief payment offer. “I think the speech from the governor was nothing more than a campaign speech.”

Mills used the week before her speech to advance negotiations on three nearly intractable issues: child welfare, utility regulation after Mainers rejected the $1 billion Central Maine Power Co. in November and a complicated tribal sovereignty push. Making progress on each of them will be a difficult task in a charged election year.

CMP critics have not been persuaded by Mills’ proposal last week to tighten utility accountability standards. They will continue to push for a question on the 2023 ballot that would replace Maine’s dominant utilities with a consumer-owned one. LePage, who was paid three years ago for pro-corridor advocacy, likened the bill co-sponsored by two Republicans to socialism.

Child welfare was a major problem for LePage that captured public attention again after the deaths of four Maine children allegedly at the hands of caregivers last June. Mills has proposed spending $8 million this year to hire more caseworkers and ramp up a watchdog’s oversight capacity, but many lawmakers in both parties want more aggressive reforms.

Mills is also preparing concessions to tribes, who have been working for years to overhaul a 1980s land-claim settlement relegating them to the status of cities and towns. But the offer — outlined by her chief lawyer in a Bangor Daily News Op-Ed on Thursday — does not go nearly as far on taxation and gaming rights as a more aggressive bill backed by the tribes.

BDN writers Caitlin Andrews and Jessica Piper contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...