AUGUSTA — Last year Gov. Janet Mills was facing the worst public health emergency and financial crisis state government had seen in over a century.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions she imposed after declaring a civil state of emergency were delivering powerful blows to Maine’s economy, staggering the tourism, restaurant and entertainment sectors on the eve of the critical, make-or-break summer season.

As unemployment skyrocketed and COVID-19 cases and deaths spiraled higher, economists projected a $2 billion state revenue shortfall over three years, setting the stage for Mills and the Legislature to grapple with drastic cuts in services and spending to keep the state’s budget balanced.

But when Mills and lawmakers closed the books on the legislative session in July, the landscape had changed dramatically. The economy is recovering, led by an ongoing surge of tourism. Revenues are outstripping projections so much that the state was able to increase its budget to $8.4 billion and still put a record amount in its rainy day fund.

The rise of the delta variant shows the public health threat from COVID-19 is far from over, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommending a return to masking in some areas, including several Maine counties, even for vaccinated people. That raises questions about whether Mills and her staff were premature in celebrating the end of Maine’s civil state of emergency in a June 30 press conference.

However, Maine still has one of the highest vaccination rates and lowest transmission rates in the nation.

The federal government has played a huge role in helping Maine weather the pandemic by funneling more than $6 billion in relief money to unemployed workers and businesses and another $3 billion to state government.

Still, the Democratic governor is earning praise for her work, mixed with some criticism from Republicans, and appears to be well positioned for a re-election campaign that may turn on her handling of the pandemic.

In a recent Blaine House interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Mills described her reaction to the unprecedented challenges she and the entire state faced as the pandemic unfolded with a classic understatement: “Oh, my gosh!”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills fields questions in the Sun Room of the Blaine House in Augusta last month. During the last year and a half, the Democrat has worked with the Legislature in two sessions that have been historic, because they were conducted remotely and because they set new records for appropriations. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

She said she consulted frequently with other New England governors, including Democrats and Republicans, as they swapped notes on keeping the public safe and their interconnected economies afloat.

“We all did it a little differently, but it was very fruitful to have conversations from time to time,” Mills said.

Although Maine Republicans criticized Mills for her tight pandemic restrictions, Republican governors in Vermont and Massachusetts put even tighter measures in place. Mills noted that she allowed construction on housing and public infrastructure to continue as an essential activity, while Vermont Gov. Phil Scott did not. Scott, a Republican who came from the construction industry, shut it down in the Green Mountain State during the early phases of the pandemic.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, also a Republican, put tighter gathering rules in place, even in private homes, and then-Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, directed police to stop cars with out-of-state plates.

Mills has been both praised and criticized for her handling of the pandemic during a civil state of emergency, which she extended every 30 days for nearly 16 months.

Her allies in the Legislature say Maine is on more solid ground because of Mills’ leadership during the pandemic, and even Republicans are willing to give her a mixed grade.

“I would go as far as to say our legislative success is directly tied to the success of how the Governor handled this pandemic,” said House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town. “We couldn’t have done it under different circumstances. She followed the science. She kept us informed.”

Dunphy says Maine’s high vaccination rate, for which she credits the Mills administration, is why lawmakers were able to return to the State House to finish their work.  She said Mills was responsive to needs made more evident by the pandemic and directed federal aid wisely.

Dunphy also said she was disappointed in a number of Mills’ vetoes, as was Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who saw Mills veto a number of bills he has worked for years to get through the Legislature. He estimated that 20 percent of Mills’ vetoes were of bills he sponsored.

He said the vetoes of progressive health care bills by a Democratic governor, especially a pair that aimed to curtail price gouging on prescription medications by pharmaceutical companies, stung.

“Us as Democrats we talk about health care being a human right and I’m pretty upset that she once again decided to veto those prescription drug bills,” Jackson said.

One of the measures would have allowed the state to fine drug makers for unsupported price increases, and the other sought to limit price hikes on generic medications.

In her veto messages on the bills, Mills commended Jackson for again bringing attention to the issue, calling the goal of the legislation “laudable,” but she said passage of the bills would “invite litigation based on several Constitutional claims.”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills answers questions during an interview July 23 in The Sun Room of Blaine House. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“That’s just a cop-out,” Jackson said. “Because obviously PhRMA is going to sue us, they’ve got more money than anybody in the world. But we are never going to make a difference on prescription drugs if we let PhRMA dictate what we are going to do at the Legislature or as government. So that one there bothers me an awful lot.”

Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, has also been on the receiving end of a number of Mills’ vetoes. She killed several bills he strongly supported, including a measure to create a consumer-owned utility. Bennett was also among the Republican lawmakers who pushed unsuccessfully for legislative orders to end the civil state of emergency that Mills extended repeatedly or limit her executive powers with more legislative oversight.

“I didn’t agree with many of her decisions, but I also give her a pass as being a person in an unprecedented circumstance who had to make some tough calls,” Bennett said. “Early on she did the right thing. She buttoned things down as much as possible until we knew more. But as we knew more, she clung to the emergency orders far too long.”

He said that when Mills’ decisions made common sense to Maine people, she has received “good marks.”

But he also accused Mills of rushing to create a “nanny state,” rather than giving Mainers a chance to rally for the common good without being forced to by the government. And he said the administration didn’t put enough money and other resources into protecting nursing homes early in the pandemic.

As for the state of Maine’s economy, Bennett says credit for that should go to Congress rather than Mills.

“It has everything to do with the massive influx of federal money and not due to her management,” he said.

During the last year and a half Mills has worked with the Legislature in two sessions that have been historic, because they were conducted remotely and because they set new records for appropriations.

Mills and lawmakers shaped a new state budget, with supplements, that set landmark funding levels for public schools at 55 percent of total costs, adding $187 million to the state’s share over the next two years, at the same time she socked away a record $491 million in the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund, doubling it from when she took over from Gov. Paul LePage in 2019.

She signed hundreds of other bills into law, from expanding access to dental care for low-income adults to providing free meals to all public school students. But she also vetoed measures backed by bipartisan majorities or the most progressive members of the Democratic Party.

Among them were bills to move the state toward a consumer-owned power utility and to restore casino gaming rights on Wabanaki tribal lands, setting back gains made by her administration on the state’s relationship with the tribes. Mills also sided with conservatives in vetoing a bill that would have increased the real estate transfer tax on the sale of homes valued at more than $1 million.

As a former attorney general and prosecutor, Mills vetoed criminal justice reform bills backed by progressives, including a measure to close the state’s only prison for juveniles and a bill eliminating pretextual traffic stops. But she is quick to point out she also practiced as a defense attorney for 14 years and led the state association for defense lawyers.

Mills vetoed 21 bills, or about 3 percent of the total sent to her. Her Republican predecessor, LePage, holds the record for the most vetoes and by the end of his second term had issued nearly 650 of them, more than all other governors combined going back to 1917. He even named a pet dog “Veto.”

Conservatives who sharply criticized Mills for being too restrictive in her executive orders on the pandemic were quick to come to her side to support vetoes of bills that they too disfavored.

But when asked if she sees herself as a moderating force or as a moderate Democrat, Mills bristled.

“I wasn’t trying to be moderate or liberal or conservative or progressive,” Mills said. “It’s just everything I did was based on my own experiences living on this Earth, living in this state.”  She noted that she’s lived in both of Maine’s congressional districts, which are distinguished politically between rural conservatives and urban or suburban liberals.

Mills said she makes her decisions based on views gained from “talking to many, many people over many years.”

“From practicing law, being a prosecutor, being a defense attorney,” she said. “That’s what I based my views on.”

LePage announced last month that he would challenge Mills next year and will begin campaigning in earnest in the fall. Although Mills has not officially announced a re-election bid, her campaign committee has already raised more than $500,000. She said a formal announcement would be coming soon.

Mills declined to discuss LePage and her previous experiences with him when he served as governor and she as the state’s attorney general. The two were frequently at odds during his administration, with Mills declining to join federal lawsuits LePage wanted Maine to pursue with other Republican governors.

Brent Littlefield, a campaign consultant and longtime political adviser to LePage, said last week that LePage would not discuss Mills’ administration or the pending campaign until after Labor Day. He wouldn’t talk about Mills’ handling of the pandemic or the results of the recent legislative session.

University of Maine professor Mark Brewer, who chairs the political science department, labeled the history between Mills and LePage as “pretty epic.”

Mills may not want to talk about LePage or his personality, Brewer said, but there’s little doubt the choice voters will make in 2022 will hinge in large part on exactly that.

“It’s not just a difference in policy positions, although there are quite a lot and some where they agree,” Brewer said. “And it’s not just a battle of two people who have, at least politically, been in each other’s hair for years. It really is also a clash of personalities. Mills comes off as having a very different type of personality than Paul LePage. And one of the things I love about this election is Maine voters are going to have a clear, stark choice. Voters have a choice and they don’t have to work very hard to see they have that choice.”

Brewer said it is also too early to judge how well Mills handled the pandemic because it hasn’t ended yet. “She’s still got some work to do,” Brewer said. “But I think until this point, the views on how she has handled it are relatively bifurcated.”

Maine Gov. Janet Mills answers questions during an interview July 23 in The Sun Room of Blaine House. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Brewer said most polling he has seen shows strong public support for Mills, and while her approval rating has dipped from the 60 percent range to the 50 percent range, it’s still on the positive side.

University of Maine at Farmington political science professor Jim Melcher said polls he has seen on Mills’ handling of the pandemic have been “pretty friendly.”

Melcher said Mills’ approach to the pandemic “fires up the people who will be the core supporters for LePage, who feel she was autocratic, limited freedom too much (and) was too burdensome on business.”

“Some are still very angry with her over that, and that will motivate them to help LePage,” Melcher said. “Gov. Mills’ handling of the pandemic is an issue that will mainly help each side reinforce and motivate their base.”

Melcher said reinstating masking requirements because of the delta variant would amplify those polarized opinions about Mills’ performance.

Mills said that as a candidate for re-election, she would focus on her own accomplishments and those of her administration, rather than attack LePage.

“If I choose to run for re-election, and I don’t see a good reason not to at this point,” she said, “I’m going to run on my own merits, on the merits of this administration.”

She said she would highlight the performance of her Cabinet; her decision to move forward with an expansion of Medicaid, which had long been stymied by LePage; her support for public education, workforce training and development; and her work to stabilize state government and the economy while protecting the lives of Mainers.

Brewer, at UMaine, said Mills’ management of the pandemic and her success with balancing the state’s budget will blunt likely lines of attack in a re-election campaign. LePage will also not be able to easily tout his own performance managing the state’s finances.

“Now I’m sure LePage will pivot and say it is federal largesse, overspending is primarily responsible, and there is probably some merit to that argument, but it’s hard to go after the Mills administration on financial management when things are looking this good,” Brewer said.

Mills is well-positioned politically to appeal to conservative or so-called “blue dog Democrats,” as well as moderate Republicans who dislike former President Donald Trump or LePage.

Brewer asserted that Mills, in many respects, reflects an older version of Maine politics.

“Not ideological but more pragmatic, this pragmatic approach not rooted in partisanship or ideology but this practical world view,” he said. Although Maine has become more partisan and ideologically divided, “we still have this kind of strong, pragmatic streak and voters will reward politicians they see fitting into that,” Brewer said.

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