Gov. Janet Mills signed a $10.3 billion state budget into law July 11, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Billy Kobin / BDN

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Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.

The current legislative session, which still hasn’t ended, has been frustrating, chaotic and unusually long. Despite all this, lawmakers did pass several significant bills and funded initiatives that can make big improvements in the lives of Maine people.

A new paid family and medical leave program has garnered a lot of attention, including from the White House. While not perfect, the program means that many Maine workers will, for the first time, be able to take paid leave to care for themselves or a family member. Maine is the 13th state to enact a paid leave program, and they are common in most wealthy nations.

The paid leave legislation gained momentum in part because progressive groups were pushing for a referendum vote on such a program. It was better to have lawmakers – with public hearings, debate and amendments to the initial bill – create the program rather than leave it to the messaging of referendum campaigns. Such considerations helped push Gov. Janet Mills toward signing the measure into law.

The new leave benefit, which begins in 2025, will be funded, after an infusion of state funds to get it going, by a 1 percent increase in the state’s payroll tax, split between employees and employers.

Beyond helping Maine workers take care of themselves and their loved ones, paid leave has benefits for employers. Research shows that paid leave encourages workers, especially women, to join and stay in the workforce, which can help reduce the wage and wealth gap between men and women. Paid leave also helps businesses retain their workers. This is crucial at a time when employers broadly report difficulty finding workers.

An inability to find child care also keeps some Mainers out of the workforce, in addition to adding a lot of stress to many Maine families. Dozens of child care centers have closed in Maine in recent years, leaving many families in so-called child care deserts, places where there are far more children than available care slots. But, even as yearly child care costs  exceed annual college tuition in some places, care providers can’t raise pay for their workers without further increasing costs.

This broken childcare system costs Maine $400 million a year in lost earning, productivity and tax revenue, according to one recent report.

Lawmakers didn’t fix this problem – it is too big for one legislative session. But, they took steps to make child care more affordable while also raising wages for providers. The budget signed by the governor earlier this week includes funding to double wage stipends for childcare workers while also increasing the availability of subsidies to help pay for care.

The budget passed by lawmakers, and signed into law by the governor this week, includes an unprecedented $100 million directed toward affordable housing and easing the state’s growing homelessness crisis. Much of the funding will go to programs that incentivize the construction of affordable rental housing. The state needs about 25,000 more affordable housing units to meet current demand.

Lawmakers also financially supported, in some instances for the first time, efforts to address homelessness. They launched a statewide Housing First initiative. Housing First prioritizes getting people into permanent housing, while also providing or connecting them with needed services. The budget also includes funding for the continuation of short-term emergency housing, including some financial support for the state’s homeless shelters, which largely rely on private donations.

Smaller, but still important, measures were also approved by lawmakers. For example, a state child tax credit was expanded. An expanded federal child tax credit lifted millions of children out of poverty. A flawed property tax relief program for older Mainers was reworked to direct the tax reductions to those Maine seniors who need the most help.

These programs and expansions are largely possible because Maine is taking in more money than expected. Many Republicans objected to the budget because the Legislature didn’t broadly cut taxes. Reducing taxes, they argue, puts more money into people’s pockets. This may be true, but a few more dollars in a weekly paycheck doesn’t allow someone to take time off to care for a new baby or sick parent if their employer doesn’t offer paid leave. A tax break doesn’t make more child care slots available if a local child care center can’t hire more employees.

As I and my colleagues on the opinion pages have said many times before, government budgets are about priorities. At a time when Maine is taking in more money than expected, a majority of lawmakers decided to prioritize investments in Maine people. I think that is a good thing.

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.