Mills’ budget criticized for prioritizing funding for police and jails over mental health needs / by Dan Neumann

Image courtesy of the Maine State Prison

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on February 16, 2023

Maine’s jails and prisons are full of individuals struggling with addiction and mental health issues. At a joint legislative hearing on Tuesday, advocates expressed dismay over Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to dramatically increase the Department of Corrections budget while allocating a fraction of that amount for mental and behavioral health.

“This year’s budget has an additional $45 million for corrections and only $3.5 million for mental health,” Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said in testimony to the legislature’s budget committee on Tuesday.

“Jails have been begging us for a decade to provide mental health services in the community because jails are not trained or equipped for the influx of people with untreated mental health diagnoses,” she added. “There are now ten times more individuals with Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI) in prisons and jails than there are in state mental hospitals. We are pushing people to the deep end of the pool. We should not be surprised that they are drowning. Our investments should be in prevention.”

In the joint hearing hosted by the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, lawmakers took public comment on a proposed two-year budget submitted by Mills last month. 

The governor has asked lawmakers to pass a budget that provides $2.5 million to the Opioid Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment Fund and $3.7 million to the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, housed within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. 

But those investments in treatment and harm reduction are meager when compared to the proposed increases for the Maine Department of Public Safety (DPS) and Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC). 

Mills is calling for $461 million for the MDOC, a $45 million increase from the last biennial budget, and $127 million for policing, an $80 million increase.

“The governor’s budget proposes to substantially increase the DPS’s staffing and funding, increasing the number of positions in public safety by 21.5 (from 643.5 positions to 664) and increasing DPS’s budget by more than 10%,” Maine ACLU policy director Meagan Sway said. “For too long, we have relied on the policing institutions in our country to solve challenges better suited to our healthcare, housing, and educational systems.”

‘We need to change our actions and funding priorities’

The governor’s handling of the state’s overdose crisis has drawn a mixed response from Mainers dedicated to ending the failed “War on Drugs” and transitioning the state to a public health response. That is because Mills has focused on expanding both treatment and incarceration with calls to crack down on fentanyl traffickers.

hyper-focus on fentanyl — which the governor mentioned several times in her State of the Budget address Tuesday evening — misses the point expressed by harm reduction advocates that policymakers should instead be moving to decriminalize substance use disorder to allow people to more easily access treatment. 

During her speech, Mills announced additional measures to combat the drug overdose epidemic, which saw a 13% jump in fatalities last year. She proposed doubling the number of trained people who can respond with law enforcement to calls about substance use and help get people connected to treatment. She also pitched adding 140 residential treatment and detox beds.

The call for additional treatment beds was welcomed by many in the recovery community, who note that Maine currently only has 91 beds that are allocated for detoxification from substances.

At the same time, Mills’ budget proposes to increase funding for the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s last youth prison, from $16.3 million to $18.1 million, despite the fact that the number of young people incarcerated at the facility has dropped by over two-thirds in the last five years. 

MDOC Commissioner Randall Liberty said during the hearing Tuesday that the increase is necessitated by higher labor costs at the youth prison. 

The Maine ACLU urged lawmakers not to increase funding for Long Creek, citing a July 2022 conclusion by the U.S. Department of Justice that Maine unnecessarily segregates children with mental health or developmental disabilities at the facility, in psychiatric hospitals, and in residential treatment facilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Instead of increasing Long Creek’s budget, the legislature should invest these funds into community-based supports that allow families to stay together and the state to meet its legal obligations,” Sway said.

In 2021, Mills vetoed a bill to close Long Creek, calling the measure “fundamentally flawed because it forces the closure of the State’s only secure confinement option for juvenile offenders before safe and appropriate alternatives will be available.” 

Advocates warned lawmakers Tuesday that Mills’ budget proposal fails to build those alternatives to incarceration at a time when the opportunity is potentially greater than ever, given a projected budget surplus for the next fiscal year. 

“The legislature is charged with crafting a budget during a time of unprecedented opportunity and abundant resources,” Sway said. “Where you invest those resources now will determine the health of our state in the coming decade.”

Similarly, Malory Shaughnessy of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services said the budget needs to match the growing consensus that the overdose crisis is a public health problem requiring a public health solution.

“We keep saying we cannot arrest and jail our way out of a problem, but each successive budget attempts and then fails to make this shift,” she said. “We need to fundamentally shift our thinking, but more than that we need to change our actions and funding priorities to reflect our new thinking.”

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

‘People are desperate:’ Budget committee encouraged to make bold investments in affordable housing / by Dan Neumann

Activists with Housing Justice Maine call on state lawmakers in 2021 to create affordable housing. | Beacon

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on February 10, 2023

As Maine lawmakers begin to draft a two-year budget, they heard Thursday from housing advocates and industry experts about the sea of Mainers struggling to afford shelter. 

“People are desperate,” Avesta development officer Nate Howes told members of the legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and Select Committee on Housing before a joint public hearing on Thursday. 

Howes explained that northern New England’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developer received 9,000 applications for the units they advertised last year. That was a 30% increase in applications from what Avesta received in 2021, and double the number they received in 2020, when housing prices began to skyrocket. Forty-three percent of the applications Avesta processed in 2022 were from residents who identified themselves as homeless.

“A recent vacancy in East Bayside received 40 complete applications in less than 24 hours,” Howes added, referring to a housing complex in Portland. “We received 1,000 applications for a recent 52-unit project in South Portland. One of our leasing specialists had to change her phone number because she was getting calls and texts in the middle of the night.”

Housing remains a top priority for lawmakers again this year. The national average home sale price has increased by 35% in less than two years. Forty percent of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.

In response, the Select Committee on Housing was formed this session to consider a host of proposals to study land use, increase housing density, mitigate the impacts of short-term rentals, and provide rental assistance. There is also a proposal to create a public developer that would maintain ownership of the housing it develops, which would be governed by the renters themselves.

Topping the list of housing priorities this session will be funding new affordable housing construction. Gov. Janet Mills’ initial budget proposal, released last month, would allocate $30 million to the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the federal Low-Income Housing Credit Program — two private-public development partnerships overseen by MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, through which they issue tax subsidies or forgivable loans to entice developers to build affordable units or refurbish old buildings.

The proposal was applauded by several private and nonprofit housing developers at the hearing on Thursday. 

Erik Jorgensen, MaineHousing’s director of government relations, said the $30 million proposed by the governor would build an estimated 250 affordable housing units. That would be on top of 87 other projects currently in the pipeline, he said, funded by the federal government and previous state allocations. 

That’s a step up from the production pace of previous years, when resources only allowed for about 180-220 affordable housing units a year to come online, and around 12 units each year for supportive housing for Maine’s unhoused population.

But Jorgensen told lawmakers that pace may fall off now that the state has spent its COVID relief funds from the federal government.

“While we’ve not yet recorded our figures for 2022, this period will, in all likelihood, be a high-water mark for our agency’s programmatic funding, which has started again to enter a period of contraction as pandemic-era special programs are winding down,” Jorgensen said.

In light of that contraction, some advocates told legislators on Thursday that the $30 million proposed by the governor is not nearly enough to address the overwhelming need for low-cost housing, and they urged lawmakers to up that total.

“While public investment is necessary to alleviate Maine’s affordable housing crisis, $30 million is insufficient to address the shortage of affordable housing,” said Josie Phillips, a budget and tax policy fellow with the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

“Housing insecurity and homelessness — driven by high costs of housing — have been repeatedly shown to endanger personal health, educational outcomes, and financial security,” Phillips continued. “Maine’s State Economist has also identified a lack of affordable housing to be one of the most significant challenges facing the state economy, particularly as it deters younger adults from migrating into the state and offsetting the aging population and declining labor force.”

Several others told lawmakers about the need to fund rental assistance for low-income Mainers. Maine’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, launched in 2020 with federal relief funds, ended in November and is no longer accepting applications. 

“I believe there is no single action to take that is more important than an improved, expanded, and fully funded rental assistance program,” said Craig Saddlemire, the development organizer for the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, which operates 15 affordable housing units in Lewiston that are owned and managed by its residents. 

“Historically, only 25% of income-eligible households have been able to receive housing assistance, due to housing assistance programs being severely underfunded,” Saddlemire said. “This means a majority of the people who need housing assistance are facing the constant threat of eviction, homelessness, or foregoing other basic needs because they are burdened by housing costs.”

Maine Equal Justice policy advocate Ann Danforth echoed the need for rental assistance, saying many low-income and unhoused residents can’t afford to rent even a place defined as “affordable.” For example, many of the units built through the federal Low Income Tax Credit are put on the market at 60% of the area median income, which in Portland is a rent of about $1,100 per month.  

“Those most in need still cannot afford a Low Income Tax Credit unit or a Rural Affordable Rental Housing unit if it is not subsidized,” Danforth told lawmakers. “Even if the housing supply outpaces the demand, this will never drive down rental prices enough to be affordable to many of our low-income neighbors.”

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