Gov. Janet Mills attends an event at the Blaine House, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Interest in the sliver of unclaimed revenues left over from Gov. Janet Mills’ budget proposal is ratcheting up, as some Democrats question the need for the $850 relief checks that form the linchpin of her spending plan and advocates press for a range of policy priorities.

Mills has left only $20 million unclaimed out of a $1.2 billion revenue surplus projected through next summer. With 237 bills the Legislature has passed but not yet funded vying for a slice of revenue, the stage is set for some high-stakes jockeying just weeks before the session is supposed to end on April 20.

Mills has held firm on the need for the relief checks, which will use up over half of the roughly $1.2 billion revenue surplus. That commitment has put her at odds with some members of her own party. Meanwhile, legislative Republicans say they won’t support any package that doesn’t have the relief payments, but are signaling they could be flexible on nearly any of their other recently released budget priorities.

“Nothing we have is a line drawn in the sand,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner. “The only line we have is the $850 [checks]. Reducing that, we won’t support.”

It is notable how much of a financial turnaround the state has experienced, which has fundamentally transformed the debate in Augusta from how to deal with scarcity to how to spend an excess of available funds.

Back in December 2020, when the pandemic was dampening the economy, the Department of Administrative and Financial Services projected a $160 million revenue shortfall for the two-year state budget period that ends June 30, 2023. The report noted efforts by the governor to reduce spending brought the deficit at the time down from a $707 million shortfall projected in March 2020.

But states have since received support from huge amounts of federal spending and a growing economy. The federal spending includes $1 billion Maine received from the 2020 CARES Act, followed by $1.5 billion from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act.

Revenues have since rebounded and the state’s economy grew by 5.2 percent last year.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported last month that every state is likely to meet its revenue forecasts this year. Still, Maine’s revenue forecasting committee warned in March that the good economic times may not last as inflation and rising fuel prices could constrict spending.

In addition to the checks, Mills is proposing $100 million to pay for transportation infrastructure projects, $60 million to help farmers affected by so-called forever chemicals, $20 million to improve the state’s behavioral health system, $22 million to create an emergency housing relief fund and several other items.

The $682 million dedicated to the relief checks has a group of Democrats questioning the wisdom of spending so much on those when housing shortages, mental health treatment needs and substance use are persistent problems in the state.

Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, a member of the Legislature’s taxation committee, says more needs to be done to address those long-term challenges now, rather than prioritize payments to households that may not need them. The checks would go to individuals who earned less than $75,000 last year.

“I just don’t think [the checks] are a priority that rises to the level of a crisis,” he said. Collings said he could support checks targeted toward lower-income households, but noted any payments will not begin to roll out until July at the earliest, limiting their utility for residents in need of the relief now.

Mills’ spokesperson Lindsay Crete said the governor’s budget package is meant to provide immediate financial aid while balancing long-term needs and accounting for changing economic headwinds. She said the governor still welcomes input on the budget and wants to reach two-thirds support in the Legislature.

Whether she will require that level of support to sign the bill remains to be seen. After Republicans withheld support on a short-term budget last year until concessions were made, Democrats pushed through a two-year budget without their support. They did the same with a spending plan for the state’s share of federal aid.

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget panel, said agreement should be possible if negotiations continue in good faith.

“We all want Maine to prosper,” she said.

Advocates are hoping there is still time to make changes.

Former state Sen. John Nutting of Leeds is working with the National Shattering Silence Coalition to push lawmakers to adopt two  bills that would increase the number of people in need of mental health services on progressive treatment plans.

Maine is one of 47 states that offer a court-appointed program to keep people who are sick from cycling in and out of hospitals and jails. But it’s the only one that does not pay legal fees for patients’ lawyers to petition for such a plan, he said.

One bill with an estimated $160,000 price tag to create a fund for such fees came out of the Legislature’s health and human services committee with a unanimous vote and has already cleared both chambers once. Nutting said that support encourages him, but the real test lies ahead, when the bill lands on the already-laden appropriations table of passed-but-unfunded legislation.

“We want the public to know there is an answer to this problem that is used in so many states and can be used in Maine,” he said.