AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills laid out her priorities for the year on Tuesday, calling on lawmakers to support increased funding for higher education and broadband infrastructure, to hire additional child welfare workers and to create a state-based health insurance marketplace.

Delivering her “State of the State” address to the Legislature, Mills also outlined her administration’s priorities to expand access to health care, invest in transportation infrastructure and continue encouraging development of renewable energy to help mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

Mills described the state of the state as strong, resilient and “ready” as citizens prepare to celebrate Maine’s bicentennial together even as the nation is bitterly divided politically.

Gov. Janet Mills recognized Farmington Fire Rescue Chief Terry Bell during her State of the State address Tuesday night. Bell was one of the firefighters who was injured in the propane blast that killed his brother, Capt. Michael Bell, in September. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“But here in Maine, we are doing what Mainers have done for more than two centuries: putting our shoulder to the wheel and working across the aisle to get things done for Maine people,” Mills said. “Because we are not Washington. We are Maine.”

That was a phrase that Mills – a Democrat elected in 2018 as Maine’s first female governor – emphasized throughout her roughly hourlong speech as she urged lawmakers to work with her and each other on common issues. She highlighted the need to deepen the fight against an opioid addiction crisis that has killed thousands of Mainers and to continue fixing flaws in a child welfare programs exposed by the abuse-related deaths of two young girls, Marissa Kennedy and Kendall Chick.

Mills pointed to her administration and the Legislature’s efforts to beef up child welfare caseworkers – 32 have been hired since last year – but called those efforts “just a down payment.”

“I will ask this Legislature to fund another 20 positions to respond quickly and effectively to reports of abuse or neglect of our children,” Mills said. “I know you agree: our greatest responsibility is to protect our children and provide them with every opportunity to succeed.”

Other proposals outlined by Mills include:

• Allocating $15 million for broadband expansion.

• Earmarking an additional $20 million of the state’s revenue surplus to the Rainy Day Fund.

• Fully funding proposed increases for Maine’s public colleges and universities.

• Sending voters a bond package to replenish the coffers of the Land for Maine’s Future conservation program.

• Forming an “Opioid Overdose Review Panel” to examine deaths and recommend state responses.

• Increasing the state benefits package provided to surviving family members of first responders killed on duty.

Gov. Janet Mills enters the House chamber Tuesday night to give her State of the State address to the Legislature. She described the state as strong, resilient and “ready” as it celebrates its bicentennial. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The latter proposal is in memory of Maine State Police Detective Benjamin Campbell, who died last year while assisting a stranded motorist. Mills honored Campbell’s widow, Hilary Campbell, who was in the House chamber gallery on Tuesday along with Chief Terry Bell of the Farmington Fire Department. Bell’s brother, Capt. Michael Bell, was killed during a massive propane explosion in September.

Mills, who lives in Farmington, announced plans to create a scholarship fund – with the first donation coming from her office – to train young people in fire suppression.

“I promise you, and I promise the people of Farmington and the people of towns all across this state, we are going to make sure every department has what they need so that this tragedy is never repeated,” Mills said.

In the Republican response broadcast on Maine Public, House Minority Leader Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, said they want to see the details on some of the initiatives Mills outlined. Dow indicated he could support some of the governor’s proposals to expand tax credits, while Dillingham said she was pleased to hear Mills speak about the need to improve the state’s road infrastructure and the need to work together.

“I believe that we can work towards compromise,” Dillingham said. “There are certain things that we are certainly never going to agree on, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t have civil debate about it.”

Mills, a Democrat, addressed lawmakers at a time when her party controls both chambers of the Legislature. That dynamic allowed Mills and Democratic leaders to push through an ambitious, progressive agenda while funneling additional money into state programs.

While the balance of power in Augusta hasn’t changed since 2019, expectations are modest on both sides of the aisle this year because of the shorter legislative session – lasting only until mid-April – and the looming November elections. Republican leaders are already signaling that they won’t go along with expanded spending and suggested the proposal to set aside an additional $20 million falls short.

“That is $395 Million short of the amount recommended by the Government Finance Officers Association,” the Maine House Republican Office said in a tweet while Mills was still speaking. “They recommend putting aside 17% of annual operating revenue.

On health care, Mills highlighted her plans to create a state-based health insurance marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act. A bill proposed by her administration and sponsored by House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, would have the state take over marketing and outreach for health care plans available through the federal exchange to self-employed or uninsured Mainers.

The bill, entitled the “Made for Maine Health Coverage Act,” would also create insurance pools to help lower costs for individuals and small businesses.

In one of the more unusual parts of the speech, Mills waded cautiously into the seemingly nonstop controversies surrounding Central Maine Power Co. and concerns over the foreign-owned companies that provide electricity to most Mainers.

Mills has been heavily criticized by some – particularly in her home region of western Maine – for supporting CMP’s proposal for a high-voltage transmission line through Maine connecting Quebec to Massachusetts. At the same time, CMP has been heavily scrutinized for its billing practices and recent requests for rate increases.

While Mills steered clear of mentioning the company or any other utility by name, she asked legislators for “guidance and your help making sure that these foreign corporations to whom we accede the privilege of operating in our state are answering to Maine, not to Spain or some other foreign country.” CMP’s parent company is the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola.

“Let’s work together to ensure that Maine consumers are at the table, that profits do not take precedence over service, and that utilities are accountable and answerable to the people of Maine,” Mills said.

As she often does, Mills sprinkled her speech with humor – jokingly asking how Maine’s prohibitionist leaders would view the state’s thriving craft beer industry today – and references to the state’s natural beauty. And while she acknowledged that some would regard her goals as overly ambitious, she returned to her theme.

“We can do these things,” Mills said. “We are not Washington. We are Maine.”

 


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