Sen. Matt Pouliot (center), R-Augusta, talks with former Senate President Mike Thibodeau (right), R-Winterport, at the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2017. Credit: Ashley L. Conit / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A key Republican idea is in the Democratic governor’s budget proposal. The Republican running to oust her in 2022 is calling that a campaign stunt.

In most years, Gov. Janet Mills’ embrace of legislative Republicans’ plan to send $500 relief checks to 800,000 Maine taxpayers would be cause for a victory lap, but former Gov. Paul LePage, who is running against Mills in November, is hitting her for his party’s proposal.

Those implicit differences between Republicans mirrored the beginning of LePage’s second term in the Blaine House. He floated a 2015 budget plan with an income tax cut offset by an expanded sales tax. Senate Republicans resisted it and he spent the rest of his tenure largely at war with them. Democrats have controlled Augusta since Mills won office in 2018.

Top legislative Republicans praised Mills’ inclusion of the relief checks, although some want a bigger giveback and have criticized increased state spending during the governor’s tenure. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, did not respond to a Friday request for comment on Mills’ embrace of the checks. When reached by phone, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, read from a prepared statement.

“We applaud the fact that Gov. Mills agrees with our commitment to give back budget surpluses to Maine’s taxpayers,” he said. “While we can’t comment on a plan of which we haven’t seen the details, any budget discussions should center on long-term solutions to make Maine a more affordable place to live.”

Pouliot said Republicans had discussed the issue earlier in the day Friday and declined to discuss the issue further.

Republicans successfully pushed for relief checks during last year’s budget negotiations, citing a desire to aid Mainers who worked during the pandemic. The compromise resulted in $285 checks for more than 500,000 Mainers below a certain income threshold. Mills’ office has not outlined the looser eligibility standards for new checks.

The interest in checks came as Maine is still facing economic challenges associated with the pandemic. Most Mainers are seeing higher energy costs this winter while inflation across the U.S. has climbed to the highest level in decades.

In the fall, Maine Senate Republicans rolled out a new plan to return state budget surpluses to taxpayers under the slogan “Give It Back,” suggesting that half of unused revenue each month could be returned to taxpayers with the rest going to the state’s rainy day fund.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, a former finance commissioner under LePage who sits on the Legislature’s budget panel, suggested a one-time giveback of around $400 million focused on direct assistance to Mainers rather than new programs. Mills’ proposal was in line with that.

But LePage strategist Brent Littlefield characterized the proposed checks as a “campaign gimmick” for Mills on Friday, saying the one-time money would not address the harms of inflation nor the workforce challenges. LePage used the proposal to re-up his call to phase out Maine’s income tax, with the cushion of the surplus helping as a start.

“Instead of working to fully eliminate Maine’s income tax like I have proposed, Janet Mills is promising more and more spending, propped up with funny money,” the former governor said in a statement after Mills’ speech.

Budget negotiations will continue after Mills releases a more comprehensive budget next week. Some legislative Republicans would still like to see a bigger giveback, although they do not have much leverage given Democratic control of the State House.

Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, a tax committee member who sponsored a bill last year to regularly return surplus money on a proportional basis to taxpayers, said he would prefer to see the state return as much as 90 percent of the surplus, whether by checks or other means.

“One way or another, whether we permanently reduce gasoline taxes, permanently reduce sales tax — whatever it takes return this money,” he said. “I’m a simple man. I like a check for every man, woman and child. I want to put the money right back in their hands.”

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.