Maine Gov. Janet T. Mills reacts to applause in the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday Night, Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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.

We got the first look at Gov. Janet Mills’   $10.3 billion budget proposal on Wednesday. It would hold the line on taxes, continue past initiatives with few big new ones and bring in up to $1 billion in federal transportation funding.

The governor billed it as a document that should get wide support in the State House. Both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislative gave a low-key response. Now that the budget is in their hands, here are three areas to watch.

Republicans hold tax-cut cards close. Here are ideas.

After rocky negotiations over a heating aid package, Republican legislative leaders were a bit conciliatory after getting a budget briefing from Mills, applauding some health care funding and committing to pursue a consensus plan.

But they were dismayed at the level of spending without a tax cut, saying continuing surpluses and two rounds of relief checks mean Mainers have been overtaxed. They gave no priorities on the kinds of tax cuts they want to go after, but there are some concrete ideas given their recent history.

One proposal came from Matt Gagnon, the CEO of the conservative Maine Policy Institute, who used his Bangor Daily News column to advocate for a middle-class income tax cut lowering rates for those making less than $100,000 and wiping them out for those making less than $50,000, something he says would undercut past Democratic arguments that Republicans are more concerned with high earners and give both sides a win.

Standard bearers from Gov. Paul LePage to Gagnon’s group have focused heavily on income taxes over the years, but Republican lawmakers have not always shared that zeal while prioritizing property and sales tax cuts. During the heating aid negotiations, Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, proposed a sales tax holiday. That could be another avenue for Republicans.

Only scant child welfare changes were included. Lawmakers want more.

The child welfare system was not a major focus of the governor’s proposal,   containing $15 million more in funding for foster care and adoption services after a critical report by the system’s watchdog.

A Democratic lawmaker is proposing a new inspector general with subpoena power and said the health committee will be looking at ways to increase caseworker pay and address their workloads, while a Republican senator that has been part of an investigation of the system wants to split the system from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The new watchdog and that change in structure were already tried in the Legislature and may not have the needed support this time, either. But recent child deaths, including one on Christmas in Edgecomb, should put lawmakers under pressure to address the administrative side of the system.

Mills took major steps on the judicial system, but will they solve major issues? 

The governor, a career prosecutor, approaches many issues like she still is one, often favoring incrementalism when others want big changes. This made her budget proposals around the judicial system some of her biggest moves yet relative to her traditional orientation.

She added $17 million more for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys under the embattled legal services system for low-income Mainers, which faces a lawsuit claiming it is not providing constitutionally adequate counsel largely due to an exodus of lawyers from the program. Mills also raised judiciary funding by $22 million after the chief justice said   the system is “failing.”

That proposal contemplates a tiered compensation system for attorneys defending low-income clients. They now make $80 per hour. Those running the system want to increase pay to $150 per hour. Mills proposes to pay lawyers between $80 and $150 based on the complexity of cases.

Mills has been skeptical of the system’s requests so far, so lawmakers may see this offer as progress while wanting to go much further given the major issues in courts. The decisions now rest with them.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...