AUGUSTA — Gov. Janet Mills proposed a $127 million supplemental budget on Monday that would increase state spending to add caseworkers at the Department of Health and Human Services and more Maine State Police troopers, among other items.

Mills also wants the Legislature to send a $15 million borrowing package to voters in November that would be used to increase high-speed internet infrastructure in Maine. The Democratic governor’s list of spending priorities closely mirrors that of Democrats in the Legislature, who hold majority control in both the House and the Senate.

She also is again proposing an increase in state education funding that would bump the state’s share of costs to 52 percent. Mills would add $37 million to what is known as general purpose aid for schools, inching the state closer to a voter-approved mandate of 55 percent state funding for public schools.

In addition, Mills wants to channel $10 million from the state’s general fund surplus to the Maine Department of Transportation to be used on highway and bridge construction, and she is proposing lawmakers advance another $100 million bonding package for highway construction and repair.

Her proposal does not include any tax increases and instead draws on a $42 million fund balance, $75 million in surplus revenue, taxes collected by the state that exceeded forecasts and about $13 million in unused funds that were budgeted to pay debt service on bonding bills that were not approved by the Legislature in 2019.

“As the Legislature puts their own fingerprints on this document, I ask they do so with some caution and great care,” Mills said, “balancing the health and safety of Maine families and our workforce needs with the long-term economic health of the state.”

State Finance Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa said the supplemental package would increase expenditures in the current two-year budget from $8.012 billion to $8.138 billion. Figueroa also said the total budget amount was well within the state’s latest revenue forecast for 2022-23 of $8.4 billion.

Mills offered a detailed list of spending proposals with at least 21 different initiatives – about half of them one-time expenses. She said all the items on the list were critical and didn’t want to single any out as priorities.

“Public safety is important, child welfare is important, wastewater treatment is important, roads are important – those are all priorities,” Mills said at a State House news conference. “And that’s what you will hear from the people of Maine.

“They don’t want to see another child death that goes unnoticed by the Department of Health and Human Services. They don’t want to  see an hour plus delay in a trooper getting to a motor vehicle crash scene to help save somebody’s life, they don’t want to see that. And they do want to fix the potholes while we are at it.”

Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, center, and Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, answer questions from reporters Monday on a proposal by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills for a $127 million supplement to the state budget in 2020. Scott Thistle/Staff Writer

Mills’ proposal includes many of the things she alluded to during her State of the State address in January including $1.5 million to hire at least 20 more child protective services caseworkers at DHHS. A department report issued to the Legislature last week suggests the agency needs at least twice that many to keep up with caseloads, especially in western, central and northern parts of the state where caseworker shortages are dramatic.

Democrats in the Legislature mostly reacted favorably to Mills proposal and noted because the proposal was supplemental and not an emergency measure they could pass much of it without Republican support, although the said they would rather not.

“There is a lot of agreement at this point,” Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, said. “But we are at the beginning and we have a lot of work to do with the public.” Breen, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, said the next step would be to hold public hearings on Mills’ proposal and to begin the work of negotiating with Republicans on the proposals.

Breen said Democrats had some points of disappointment in the proposal including that it didn’t increase funding for long-term care workers or address that critical shortage in Maine.

Republican leaders were less happy with the governor’s proposal.

“It didn’t take long to realize they spent every nickel that’s coming in,” said Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro. “There’s money burning a hole in people’s pockets and they spent all of it.”

But Mills’ proposal moves an additional $20 million to the state’s so-called “Rainy Day” account, also known as the budget stabilization fund. Her proposal also leaves another $6 million unspent that would be settled by the Legislature.

Dow and other Republicans also seem to disagree with Mills over borrowing again to fix roads or to expand high-speed internet. They said the interest paid on bonds goes to bankers and brokers and not toward other important needs, like funding for nursing homes.

Assistant House Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, said Republicans also are concerned the proposed spending would not be sustainable on top of the state’s $8 billion two-year budget passed last June. A negative shift in the economy and a downturn in state revenue growth would leave future lawmakers facing funding shortfalls, he said.

“When you set a new baseline that is too high to sustain going forward then you are really going to see either claw backs on various programs, take things away, or you are going to see tax increases in a variety of forms,” Stewart said. “The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money. We do have enough money, we just aren’t doing the right things with it.”

The proposed budget will be the subject of several weeks of public hearings before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, starting later this month.

 

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