AUGUSTA, Maine — As Gov. Janet Mills takes the stage for her second inaugural address on Wednesday evening, she will prescribe solutions to problems that many of her predecessors would recognize well.
While second inaugurations typically lack the hype of a first, they are often less aspirational and more specific. They are focused on the governor’s potential legacy and their plan to cement it. But a breeze through history shows many of the same issues popping up again and again.
We went back 164 years to show this symmetry, laying out some of the biggest themes in state politics and how this context tells us how the Democratic governor may deal with them in a second term. Here are four examples.
“We have been too long content with the doubtful compliment that ‘Maine is a good State to go from.’ She must be made a good State to come to, and to stay in.”
This could have been Mills, who replaced former Gov. Paul LePage’s “Open for Business” sign along the Maine Turnpike with a “Welcome Home” one in 2019. But it was the legendary Gen. Joshua Chamberlain after he was elected to his second of four one-year terms as governor.
The problem, now referred to as “brain drain,” has been noted by governors before Chamberlain and after him and may be the most culturally significant underlying issue in Maine politics. The state is now the oldest one by median age, which has contributed to the dour demographic picture dominating talk of Maine’s economy in recent decades.
Things have turned around slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just more than 16,000 people moved to Maine in 2021 alone, offsetting the state’s 6,300 more deaths than births. They have replaced workers previously expected to drop out of the workforce, but the state’s Department Labor cautioned last month that it’s unclear how long the trend will persist.
“The nub of the taxation problem lies in relieving the inequitable burden on real estate.”
Gov. Louis Brann was speaking during the Great Depression in 1935, 34 years before Maine got an income tax. While property taxes are not as dominant now, they still carry a heavy burden in a state whose homeownership rate ranks second in the country and hit hard because they are usually paid in just two installments each year.
State and local tax rates have ticked up in Maine and across the country in the past decade, something attributable to taxable income, activities and rising property values. In her first term, Mills held the line on income taxes and used surpluses fueled by COVID-19 aid to soup up property tax relief programs.
Expect more of that in her second term after her 2022 campaign promised she would not raise income taxes. A novel program backed by Republicans and allowed to go into law by Mills letting seniors freeze their property tax payments also comes online this year.
“The program for board and care of neglected children cries out for our attention. It covers some 2,100 children who have been committed to the department because of gross negligence on the part of the parents.”
This was Gov. Edmund S. Muskie in 1957 before he went on to a more-famous career as a U.S. senator. He was discussing pay to the families caring for these children. The wider issue has plagued Mills and governors before her. The year 2021 was the worst on record for child deaths, and the subject is timely after the Christmas homicide death of a 3-year-old girl in Edgecomb.
The Legislature’s watchdog committee sued the Mills administration for access to confidential files on child deaths. While a judge ruled against it in December, lawmakers have said they may introduce a law that would give them and not just their staff access to these documents as a matter of course. Sen. Joe Baldacci, D-Bangor, also has placed the issue among his biggest priorities as health committee co-chair.
“How much does a fisherman gain if his income goes up a few thousand dollars but he can no longer afford to live by the sea?”
This was a pensive 1999 portion of former Gov. Angus King’s second inaugural address, in which the current U.S. senator contemplated how to foster economic progress and keep Maine in line with its history. Careful planning ended up being his answer to that conundrum.
But it looks prescient considering Maine’s pandemic-era boom in housing prices, something that has made it harder than ever for young people to establish themselves like their parents did. Coastal areas have been hit hardest by the affordability crisis, including the Blue Hill Peninsula, which is considering a regional housing authority to respond to the shortage.
Leading lawmakers, including House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, have dedicated a new legislative committee to the issue in 2023 after passing a reform bill last year that takes on single-family zoning. But it was watered down due to concerns of eroding local control over housing. Any solutions passing muster in Augusta will have to be sensitive to that.
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.