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Gov. Janet Mills gave an hourlong budget address on Tuesday, making the case for her $10.3 billion spending plan for the next two years while unveiling a host of new energy, housing and child welfare initiatives.
We were scanning the room for clues on how it landed, counting 23 applause lines for the Democratic governor. About half featured roughly equal reactions from both sides of the aisle in a speech peppered with references to bipartisan work that closed with Mills’ hope for a consensus budget.
Areas in which the parties agreed showed how Maine politics has changed during the Mills era, while disagreements showed a rough roadmap for the rest of the Legislature’s 2023 work. Here are three main lessons.
Everyone liked spending on schools and municipal aid.
Mills’ budget continues past initiatives, including by funding K-12 education and revenue sharing to cities and towns at statutory levels that were unmet before the governor’s tenure. She was able to meet them after a raft of federal COVID-19 aid left Maine and other states flush with surpluses.
On Tuesday, Mills touted those accomplishments saying in previous budgets she and lawmakers “got a lot done.” Both Democrats and Republicans applauded that statement, though members of the latter party on the House side were a bit slower to rise on the education piece.
Former Gov. Paul LePage made revenue sharing into a somewhat partisan issue during his tenure, when he once proposed zeroing it out of a budget plan. While he never succeeded in doing that, his actions contributed to chronic underfunding. In the Mills era, she and Democrats have led the way on these initiatives and Republicans have seen this aid as a good alternative to new state programs.
Two Republicans stood out as an ally and adversary for Mills.
From the designated press area in the Democratic corner of the House chamber, it was a little bit difficult to see the Republican side of the room. But two members stood out for when they clapped and when they did not.
Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, was the only Republican whom I saw applauding Mills’ embrace of taking a “Housing First” plan used in Portland and some other parts of Maine statewide. This effectively means subsidizing permanent housing for those who lack it before connecting them with other needed services, including mental health or substance misuse treatment.
Pouliot comes from a unique position on the issue — he owns a major real estate company in the capital city and helped negotiate the housing reform deal passed last year over the objections of many conservatives. He will be a key member of the committee focused on the housing affordability crisis.
Perhaps the stingiest member of the House when it came to applause was Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, who remained seated a few times while those around her clapped, including when Mills highlighted her proposal to continue funding universal school meals for Maine children.
The conservative side received Mills’ new energy goal poorly.
Some Republicans applauded politely for most of the speech, including Rep. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, who was a longtime member of the Senate before flipping over to the lower chamber this year. But even he was at rest when Mills outlined her goal of fully powering Maine with renewables by 2040.
This was notable as one of the only new initiatives the governor mentioned that is likely to come outside of the budget process — meaning Democrats are likely to pass it by themselves as a standalone measure. After the speech, House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, shrugged off the idea after the speech saying Maine must “look out for the ratepayers.”
Mills decried the billions sent out of state to “big fossil-fuel companies” during the speech. In substance, that is not much different than the state’s long-term energy goals dating back to the LePage era, when weaning Maine off heating oil was a major priority. But high costs have led to more of a partisan divide on how quickly to do this, and the Republican reaction was a symptom of that.