Maine governor defends $8B budget proposal as ‘pragmatic’
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine’s Democratic governor rallied support Monday for her two-year, $8 billion budget proposal, which includes funding for Medicaid expansion that she deemed the “bargain of a century.”
Gov. Janet Mills, buoyed by Democratic control of the House and Senate, told a joint session of the Legislature that it’s time to move forward on her campaign promises to address health care access, the opioid crisis, climate change, education funding and economic development. Mills said critics will call her budget “government spending run amok,” but she said her “pragmatic” budget contains no tax increase and could weather an economic downturn.
“We cannot afford to stand still,” Mills said. “So this budget moves us forward.”
Her self-described “pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-people” proposals gained frequent applause from lawmakers, particularly Democrats who now control the State Senate, House and governor’s mansion.
Democrats could technically pass a budget without Republican buy-in. But House Republican Leader Kathleen Dillingham said Democrats have told her that they want to pass a budget with two-thirds support from lawmakers.
Mills, who previously served as the state’s top law enforcement official, also drew applause from Republicans for some of her initiatives, which include hiring 15 new law enforcement officers to reduce drug trafficking.
But Republicans calling for more money in the rainy day fund said the budget is too big, noting that former Gov. Paul LePage originally proposed a $6.8 billion budget in 2017. The former governor himself took to the airwaves Monday, telling WGAN-AM that her budget is “absolutely outrageous.”
“One little hiccup and we’re in trouble,” said Republican Assistant Senate Leader Jeffrey Timberlake, who warned the budget relies too much on estimates of future tax revenues.
Mills argued her budget would stimulate job growth and bring more federal funding to hard-hit rural communities across the state. Her proposals range from a $40,000 minimum teacher salary, to broadband and economic development efforts geared at attracting young families back to the aging state of 1.3 million.
“This is a pragmatic commonsense budget that lives within our means and delivers what Maine people want,” she said.
Mills said the budget continues work her administration has already begun to bolster efforts that languished under Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, including the state’s public health nursing program.
“It’s about helping those who have been left behind,” she said.
Maine saw 282 deaths due to drug overdoses in the first three quarters of 2018, slightly down from 297 in the same period in 2017. The vast majority of overdoses continue to stem from opioid drugs.
Over 4,500 Mainers have gained Medicaid coverage under expansion since January, when Mills on her first day signed an executive order directing the state to start signing up what could amount to over 70,000 low-income Mainers.
The new governor, who invited several parents who lost their children to opioid overdoses, said her budget includes training and recovery coaches for emergency departments and expanded access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
“There is hope, I promise you, there is hope,” she said.