AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills laid out her $8 billion budget before the Legislature on Monday night, arguing for a proposal that expands Medicaid, spends more on the opioid crisis and returns more money to municipalities by telling lawmakers Maine “cannot afford to stand still.”

In the first budget address of her tenure as governor, Mills said that Maine “has many assets but it also has many challenges” as the state lags behind its New England neighbors on economic expansion, income growth and public health. Mills said her two-year, $8 billion budget “moves us forward” by making investments in schools, infrastructure and health initiatives without raising taxes.

“This is a pragmatic, common-sense budget that lives within our means and that delivers what Maine people want,” said Mills, a former attorney general and Democratic state lawmaker who is Maine’s first female governor.

Mills unveiled the outline of her first spending blueprint Friday, kickstarting a months-long process that primarily will play out in the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. The $8 billion spending plan represents about an 11 percent increase over the current $7.2 billion two-year budget, a jump that Mills said is within the $8.3 billion that the state’s nonpartisan Revenue Forecasting Committee has projected that Maine will collect in the next two fiscal years.

“In short, this budget is sustainable,” Mills said in what appeared to be a response to Republican lawmakers calling the plan “unsustainable” last week. Mills also made note that only one of the 15 members of her Cabinet had yet to be confirmed by the state Senate, a vote that is expected later this month. “We are getting to work,” she said.

Throughout her roughly 30-minute speech, Mills repeatedly used the word “hope” and even made it an acronym of her budget priorities of health, opportunity, prosperity and education. She spoke about how expanding Medicaid to more than 70,000 lower-income Mainers would improve their health outcomes while reducing overall health care costs over the long term. Democrats in the audience rose regularly to cheer as she touched on several policy areas, including the Medicaid expansion, which her Republican predecessor, Gov. Paul LePage, had blocked time and time again, using his veto pen and support from minority Republicans in the House to stop veto overrides. Republicans in the audience largely remained seated during Mills’ speech.

The roughly $147 million included in her budget proposal for Medicaid expansion, Mills said, will leverage roughly $1 billion in federal matching money.

“It is the bargain of the century,” said Mills, drawing a striking contrast with LePage, who fiercely blocked Medicaid expansion throughout his eight-year tenure.

Mill devoted several minutes of her speech talking about the drug crisis that continues to claim roughly one Mainer per day. Recounting the heartbreaking personal experiences of several people in attendance, she talked about parents losing children to opioid overdoses, and about surviving family members and people in recovery who are working to help address the drug crisis.

In her budget address to state lawmakers Monday, Gov. Janet Mills said that Maine “cannot afford to stand still” and that her spending plan is “sustainable.” Staff photo by Carl D. Walsh

Mills is proposing an additional $5.5 million to train more recovery coaches and expand treatment programs – including the availability of medication-assisted treatment – while making the overdose reversal drug Narcan more widely available. Medicaid expansion also is expected to help gain access to costly treatment programs.

Turning to some of the family members, Mills said, “There is hope. I promise you, there is hope.”

Mills’ budget proposal also calls for spending an additional $126 million on K-12 education over the biennium, increasing funding for Maine’s public colleges and universities, and gradually ramping up the amount of tax dollars returned to municipalities in the form of “revenue sharing.”

On Friday, Republican leaders and members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee questioned the math undergirding Mills’ budget. In particular, they said they cannot envision the overall budget being any higher than $7.7 billion without requiring future tax increases. Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said he believed Mills’ budget leaned too heavily on the state revenue forecasting numbers and that any downturn in the economy would spell disaster under Mills’ proposal. Dow also urged Mills to consider continuing LePage’s effort to continue to lower state income taxes.

Republicans also were critical that Mills budget does not add to the state’s budget stabilization fund, or so-called “rainy day fund,” which is now at about $273 million. While Mills’ budget doesn’t tap those reserves, Republicans worry that any downturn in the economy would force that to happen under her proposal.

“I’m not the type of person that wants to spend every single nickel in the budget,” Dow told reporters after Mills’ speech. “I think during the good and robust times, those are the times when we ought to be saving some money and putting it in the coffers for the slower times.”

But Republicans have little leverage over Mills, who enjoys Democratic majorities in the both the House and Senate. While Democratic leaders have vowed they want a bipartisan budget, they could move forward without any Republican votes provided they do so before the middle of April, which would allow enough time for the new budget to become law under the state’s constitution. After mid-April, they would need support from two-thirds of the Legislature to pass the budget as an emergency measure, allowing it to be enacted before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, or risk a standoff on another state government shutdown.

Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, assistant Senate minority leader, said if Democrats forced a majority budget, “They own it.” But Democratic leaders said they were not worried about having to pass a majority budget, suggesting they had plenty of time to negotiate with their Republican colleagues to reach a bipartisan deal.

Democratic leaders also were quick to note Mills had broad popular support, and was the first governor to be elected to a first term with more than 50 percent of the vote since 1966, and seemed unabashed in pointing it out.

“Paul LePage said teachers are ‘a dime a dozen.’ Shawn Moody lost the election when he said Maine schools are ‘overfunded.’ Based on the reactions of the Republicans to Governor Mills’ budget speech tonight, they’ve clearly learned nothing,” House Majority Leader Matt Moonen, D-Portland, tweeted shortly after Mills’ speech.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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