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February 12, 2019

Mills pitches $8B budget to Maine lawmakers as 'pragmatic, common-sense' plan

Photo / Jeff Kirlin Gov. Janet Mills, shown here during her inaugural address, made her case for a proposed $8 billion biennial budget to lawmakers Monday night, calling it a "pragmatic, common-sense budget."

Gov. Janet Mills made the sales pitch to state lawmakers Monday night for her proposed $8 billion biennial budget, rebutting criticism by the Republican opposition that increased spending on services such as health care and education represent “government spending run amok.”

Mills said the draft 2020-21 budget, an 11% increase from the previous two-year period, addresses voter priorities by stepping up the fight against the opioid epidemic, tackling student debt and promoting small businesses — all without raising taxes.

“This is a pragmatic, common-sense budget that lives within our means and delivers what Maine people want,” Mills, a Democrat who took office in January, said in her speech, which was live-streamed. “There are no gimmicks.”

Members of the Republican minority in the Legislature have given the budget a cool reception, saying it is more than the state can afford. In countering that argument, Mills cited official revenue forecasts showing the budget will be balanced, as required by the Maine constitution.

She underscored that the proposal is based on projections from independent experts on the previous administration’s Revenue Forecasting Committee, who say that revenue beyond the current two-year period is expected to be $8.3 billion.

“That’s hundreds of millions of dollars more than what this budget proposes,” she said. “When taken in combination with the robust Rainy Day fund that we have protected, Maine is well-positioned in the years to come. In short, this budget is sustainable.”

Mills spoke for about half an hour, starting with a thanks to Mainers for their outpouring of warmth over the past month and cautioning that Maine “cannot afford to stand still.”

Health care, education among priorities

Focusing first on health care, Mills said that more than 4,000 people are newly enrolled in MaineCare since January, and the intention is to help up to 70,000 people who now lack affordable insurance.

She added that MaineCare expansion will help Maine’s economy as a whole by bringing $500 million in federal funds to Maine and creating 6,000 new jobs.

“All of these workers,” she said, “will pay income and sales tax, which will in turn help the state’s bottom line. This is economic development on a large scale.”

The budget also includes $5. 5 million to fight the opioid epidemic.

Education, which Mills said has suffered “from years of neglect,” is another priority. Her plan calls for spending an additional $126 million in K-12 education and for investing in recruitment and retention to ensure that teachers will not be forced to leave the state for a living wage, she said.

“It is time to treat our teachers with the respect and dignity they deserve,” she said, adding that the budget also ensures that no teacher in Maine will earn less than $40,000 a year.

Mills will need Republican votes to pass the budget, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature. Public hearings followed by a vote are the next steps in the process. The budget is due to take effect on July 1.

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