The status-quo election keeping Gov. Janet Mills and Democrats in control of Maine politics came after big debates over the state’s old problems and ones that have risen to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As always, Maine’s two-year budget will be among the biggest items in the State House, while activists are trying to take two major reforms right to the voters. A housing affordability crisis that is worst on the coast but is also hitting inland areas will also be a point of emphasis.
Here’s what we know now about how these debates could unfold in and out of Augusta.
The governor’s budget
Mills remains in a good position to set the agenda in her third budget proposal. After she took office in 2019, legislative Republicans balked at a spending mark of $8 billion. But they were only able to win a small reduction by the time a consensus deal was reached.
The parties have fought over spending since, notably when Democrats passed a simple-majority budget in 2021. The governor is signaling that she wants a consensus package and is not expected to raise taxes in her next proposal. Her standoff with Senate Republicans over a heating aid bill now on track to pass next week could preview sticking points.
During that debate, advocates and some Republicans raised nursing homes, long-standing waitlists for people with intellectual disabilities and funding for the embattled legal defense system for low-income people as priorities. The Mills administration retorted that one-time funding should not address long-term needs. It will be under pressure to deliver here.
Maine’s electricity future
Lawmakers missed a chance to decide this when Mills vetoed a bill last year to establish a consumer-owned utility replacing Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power after years of poor showing in approval polls and the referendum defeat of the $1 billion CMP corridor.
Advocates are now taking it to the ballot box in 2023, with CMP’s parent already spending $10 million against the question. It is doing that in large part by trying to put a referendum of its own on next year’s to subject the billions in public borrowing required under the consumer-owned utility proposal to yet another public vote.
Even if utility critics win, they may not win. There are plenty of questions about their referendum, including the cost of buying out CMP and Versant’s infrastructure and whether forcing them to sell is constitutional. This could drag out in the courts for a long time.
Paid family and medical leave
Bringing Maine in line with sweeping paid family and sick leave programs adopted by many of its northeastern neighbors has been a priority for progressives here, with an attempt to put such a program on the ballot in 2023 getting over 51,000 signatures on Election Day.
Change could come even sooner if it is done through the Legislature, said Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, who both works for the Maine People’s Alliance, one of the progressive groups pushing the measure, and co-chairs the Legislature’s labor committee, which is going to consider recommendations from a legislative commission on the subject.
The referendum can be viewed as pressuring the Legislature to act after Mills and lawmakers watered down a previous proposal into a paid-leave mandate for employers. The role of the governor will be crucial, as will be the posture from legislative Republicans, who could engage to win a more favorable outcome or withdraw and let Democrats take credit or blame.
“I would rather have a seat at the table and be able to craft and have dialogue and work it as best you can,” said former Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, who served on the paid leave commission.
The housing crisis
Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, are prioritizing addressing the housing crisis as well, although specific proposals are not fleshed out yet. One of the biggest items of the last session was a housing reform bill that took on single-family zoning, but even that relatively strong bill was changed due to protests from municipalities.
Rep. Traci Gere, D-Kennebunkport, represents the Maine community with the highest housing prices, but she said she’s been shocked to see those costs “push” into the rest of the state. It is something she says practically every member of the Legislature now has to contend with, especially after 22,000 more residents have come here since 2020 in a reversal of past trends.
Gere’s goal as co-chair of a new committee is to increase housing units and keep existing ones affordable. A leading Republican on the panel, Sen. Matt Pouliot, who runs a major real estate firm in Augusta, said he will be submitting several proposals, including one that would allow cities and towns to opt into a “developer catalog” showing pre-approved designs for certain areas to speed up permitting processes.
Don’t expect much on the short-term rental front. While a recent legislative study examined their effect on the housing market and many Democrats said they backed restrictions during the campaign, Gere noted municipalities can regulate them. Republicans have generally resisted mandates as well, so supply may be the biggest focus in the near term.