AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills promised Wednesday to work toward solving Maine’s persistent opioid and housing crises in a second inaugural address marked by a refrain that the state’s “best is yet to come.”
The governor enters her second term in a strong position after her November rout of former Gov. Paul LePage, her predecessor and longtime rival, came as her fellow Democrats maintained control of the Legislature. While they hold the keys, Mills may clash with progressives on priorities and Senate Republicans have taken an aggressive early tone.
Mills’ 2018 election came after she pledged to overturn much of LePage’s legacy. Notably, she implemented voter-approved Medicaid expansion, which now covers nearly 100,000 Mainers. In her inaugural address four years ago, she promised a “new day” after his divisive tenure.
read the speech here
On Wednesday, she touted past accomplishments with her refrain accompanied by a broad-brush outline of her vision for Maine, declaring health care a human right, pledging to fight climate change and calling decent homes essential and saying Maine will build more.
“It is an honor to lead a people where everything good is possible and where we believe always, deep in our hearts, the best is yet to come,” she said.
Her speech at the Augusta Civic Center came hours after a bipartisan victory. Just before, she signed a $473 million heating aid package including $450 relief checks to 880,000 Mainers. It was stalled in December by Senate Republicans, whose leader accused the governor of lying about a deal then but backed it Wednesday after securing a public hearing. She said that move provided “hope” to Mainers.
Nitty-gritty parts of Mills’ plan will be clear in the coming days when she submits her two-year budget proposal to the Legislature. The debate over the heating aid bill could preface some of the fights over that proposal, which was funded by an estimated $280 million state budget surplus through June and transfers from other programs including Medicaid.
That transferred money is being offset by increased federal funding, but some Republicans and advocates for people with intellectual disabilities still criticized it given long-standing waitlists for services. Mills and Democrats retorted that those problems should be addressed in the budget. At the State House, a top Republican said his party will hold the governor accountable.
“Republicans have fought for those who are in most need for many, many years,” Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said in a floor speech during consideration of the heating aid bill, which he backed on Wednesday. “We will continue to do so.”
The governor nodded to many of Maine’s biggest problems in her speech. Talk of the deepening opioid crisis dominated her campaign with LePage. The year 2022 will almost certainly set a record for overdose deaths, despite Mills prioritizing the policy area early in her tenure by naming an opioid czar and prioritizing money for treatment.
Every part of the state has also been touched by a housing affordability crisis that is most acute along the coast and in the Portland area. It was fueled by a wave of early-pandemic migration to the state that was the largest here in two decades, something Mills touted in her speech.
She nodded to other sore spots of her tenure. While she and lawmakers added caseworkers early on in her first term, 2021 was the worst year on record for child deaths. Lawmakers recently sued her administration unsuccessfully for documents on high-profile cases and are targeting more reforms in the new year.
Mills said the state “shall not rest” until child abuse, overdoses and domestic violence are eradicated.
She came out to strong applause from attendees, including lawmakers and supportive members of the public. Several said they were there to see history with Maine’s first female governor being sworn in again. There was a heavy security presence beyond past inaugurations. Journalists were asked to leave laptops in the auditorium after an afternoon check-in.
The governor was sworn in by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who laughed with her as she flubbed a section of the oath of office. She was sworn in wearing a suffragette-white suit and custom-made L.L. Bean boots with the state’s seal sewn on them.
Mills acknowledged the new House speaker, Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, who is the first Black lawmaker to win that job. She has clashed with Jackson on economic issues and Talbot Ross on social ones, but the mood was high and hopeful on Wednesday evening ahead of the height of the legislative session.
“Over the next four years it will be our challenge to address these issues head-on, to continue the march of progress we began four years ago, and to be prepared for challenges not yet known to us,” Mills said.
BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.