A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
Gov. Janet Mills will unveil her two-year budget proposal on Wednesday, but we already have a good idea of how she is posturing on the crucial roadmap.
During her first term, Mills has sat somewhere in the center of State House politics. That is further to the left than Republicans would like, but Democrats have won three straight battles for legislative control. That puts Republicans in the back seat, holding the normal two-thirds majority budget process as their major point of leverage.
When she took office in 2019, Mills rankled the minority party with an $8 billion proposal just after taking office, but adjusted for inflation it is little different from the $6 billion budget eight years before. On the other side, progressives wanted to see higher taxes on high-income Mainers.
The governor was reelected in 2022 after a raft of federal aid helped keep state budgets afloat during the pandemic and gave her the breathing room to travel the state to sell a number of new economic initiatives. Now that it is ramping down and there is a divided government again in Washington, Mills is teasing her proposal with the same caution she noted four years ago.
Mainers want “a sense of stability from government” and “not a lot of drama when it comes to inventing new programs or diminishing old programs,” the governor told WCSH last week. At the same time, she noted affordable housing, lacking mental health treatment and the opioid epidemic as areas of concern. Those could be places to look for new initiatives, while Mills has also said she is considering whether to extend a free community college program.
The early response from legislative Republicans is going to be crucial as well. On the recently passed heating aid bill, House Republicans won more relief checks by engaging in negotiations while Senate Republicans voted down the bill initially and then gave Mills the votes she needed after a public hearing.
But that was only after a range of policy criticisms from the minority party in the upper chamber, including a focus on nursing home funding and reducing long-standing waitlists for services for people with developmental disabilities and autism. Lawmakers across the political spectrum are targeting reforms in the child welfare system as well.
While Democrats will probably signal their desire for a budget with Republican input and two-thirds majorities in both houses, remember that they have plenty of time to bypass the minority party and pass a budget with a simple majority, as they did in 2021. Lawmakers are going to quickly insert their own priorities and Democrats could shift based on how the early talks go, but Mills seems like she is going to open with a stay-the-course message.
“I don’t expect to change now, in how I do things, how I communicate, relationship building, those kinds of things,” Mills told Maine Public in December about how she will govern in her final term. “Those are the kind of things that I think people want to see.”