In her State of the State address Thursday evening, Gov. Janet Mills ceded to Republican demands to use half of the state’s forecasted $822 million revenue surplus for a one-time payment to 800,000 Mainers.
While the governor also proposed funding for two years of free community college tuition, student debt tax credits, boosted wages for child care workers and free school meals, the payout comes at the expense of other critically-needed investments in building affordable housing, expanding health care, protecting workers, and responding to the overdose epidemic and the climate crisis.
“Many of my friends on the other side of the aisle, like Senate Minority Leader Jeff Timberlake and House budget lead Sawin Millett, have called for a return of half the surplus to Maine people through direct checks. I think they’re right,” the governor said.
Going into this year’s negotiations on the state’s supplemental budget, Maine has an estimated $822 million surplus. Mills is proposed using $411 million to send one-time direct checks of $500 to about 800,000 taxpayers in Maine.
Some progressive groups criticized the proposal for not prioritizing those Mainers most in need at a time when Maine has seen a dramatic increase in wealth among the state’s highest earners. The surplus state revenue is partially a result of that increase in inequality.
“We can do better than a blind payment that goes to everyone regardless of their ability to weather the storm we’re in. At half the cost, we can lift up people who are falling behind while also making important investments in our communities,” Garrett Martin, president of the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP), said in a statement.
Mills has indicated that she is not interested in using the supplemental budget to fund new, long-term programs, though advocates like MECEP say the pandemic has exposed the need for just that.
Martin said a more targeted direct payment would provide room to make bold investments with the surplus such as funding a paid family medical leave program and increasing wages for care workers and preventing retired state employees and teachers from losing ground to inflation.
“Rather than issue blanket $500 checks to families that have likely seen their income grow during the pandemic, by boosting Maine’s sales tax fairness credit the same benefit could be provided more directly to those whose income hasn’t increased,” Martin said. “Savings generated by this approach make it possible for the governor and legislature to address other shortcomings exposed by the pandemic and further strengthen Maine’s economy.”
Among the other shortcomings exposed by the pandemic that did not get much attention in the governor’s speech are the housing crisis, the overdose epidemic and global warming.
“We will make progress on the opioid epidemic, on improving the child welfare system, on combating climate change, on bringing down the cost of electricity and curbing our reliance on fossil fuels to cut energy costs, and on addressing the devastating impact of PFAS on our health and livelihoods,” the governor said, in her only nod to those significant issues.
Among the governor’s proposals that progressives lawmakers and advocacy groups applauded was a pledge for $12 million in funding to raise wages for child care workers, $30 million to maintain the state’s statutorily-required 55% contribution to fund public schools, funding for Pre-K and universal free meals in schools, and an ambitious plan to provide broadband for anyone who wants it in two years.
The speech was the final State of the State address Mills will give before seeking re-election in November, though she has yet to formally announce her campaign. Some observers saw the speech as a venue to tout her accomplishments and rally a progressive base that has been critical of the centrist Democrat.
In all, the governor said the word “progress” 22 times during the address.
“Maybe I’m reading too much into that,” said Maine Public State House reporter Steve Mistler in a post-speech analysis, “but I felt like that was an acknowledgement that she has some discontent or disenchantment on her left flank with the progressives in her party.”
Photo via a Maine Public livestream
Author: Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Maine Beacon, February 11, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/mills-touts-one-time-payment-in-address-glosses-over-housing-overdose-climate-crises/