Maine is about to get $15 billion. That’s a lot of money!

As of Aug. 17, this is the amount that the Maine Bureau of the Budget reports has been made available to Maine through federal COVID relief legislation. Five separate pieces of federal legislation, spanning the period 2020-2021, have authorized these distributions. Among them: the CARES Act, Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the American Rescue Plan.

The funds set the stage for a stronger and more equitable recovery and are expected to reduce financial distress, hunger, housing insecurity and health care costs for many: $6 billion comes in the form of grants, which include awards made to the state and to entities within it; $9.25 billion are non-grants, which constitute relief payments made directly to private entities, paycheck protection loans to business, and loans which do not flow through state government.

To many it may seem that this is an inordinate amount of money flowing downhill from the federal government to the states. But in times of recession, national governments of all political persuasions have always pursued short-term boosts in spending to battle broad-based economic crises. Importantly, these stimulus efforts have worked — both in the U.S. and around the world.

During this current national crisis, these federal appropriations are essential in keeping states afloat. In a small, rural state like Maine, which classically enters recessions early and recovers from them late, stimulus spending is particularly important. Only a handful of residents could have endured this pandemic without them.

The spurt of billions of dollars, however, requires quick, tight deadlines for spending. The Mills administration’s roadmap for these discretionary funds was The Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan which organized its proposals into three categories for three specific purposes: 1) spur Maine’s economic recovery from the pandemic, 2) invest in long-term economic growth, and 3) build and revitalize essential infrastructure.

The Legislature used its budget process to allocate the discretionary amounts. Agreement by the super-majority of the Legislature and the governor in addition to public input from and discussions with business, economic, education, nonprofit and community leaders led the way to L.D. 1733: An Act to Provide Allocations for the Distribution of State Fiscal Recovery Funds.

This act spells out allocations in a wide range of sectors including: waterfront infrastructure; direct care workforce promotion; investments in agricultural, food, and forest product industries; emergency alert systems; youth homeless shelters; free water testing for eligible residents; workforce transportation and affordable housing projects; weatherization projects; economic recovery grants for small businesses; and increased childcare. This spending plan touches all of us.

The necessity of turning-around allocations and expenditures at lightening-speed leads us though to two areas of concern. A first is that allocations may reproduce the siloed approach to issues so frequently used in the past. Erring on the side of optimism, might we see, for example, state and/or local collaborations which could expand and strengthen the use of these funds and better ensure the sustainability of projects that arise? Might we see the evolution of new organizations or collectives who bring to the table new ideas for collaborative work between organizations and businesses that have not traditionally worked side by side? And if not, why not?

Maine has a history of ingenuity in developing projects that could model a changed approach. A recent example is the $30 million U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant Lewiston received for affordable housing. The project will redesign public housing in one neighborhood, collaborate with private investment partners, and create complementary family-centered programs like healthcare and workforce development by braiding together the efforts of government, business, and nonprofits, the Lewiston project dismantles the business-as-usual-approaches of the past. This is a great time to employ that creativeness again.

A second concern focuses on the public’s right to know that the funds are spent in both a timely and equitable way and that the outcomes are widely publicized. This massive infusion of cash demands accountability, transparency, and oversight. Maine residents deserve to know how these funds have in fact “set the stage for a stronger and more equitable recovery”.

While the governor and her cabinet have taken the lead on allocations, and departments, cities and towns will take the lead on distribution, the Legislature will receive the progress and outcome reports. But few of us have time to hover in the Appropriations Committee room waiting for these reports.

There is little doubt in our minds that this infusion of cash from federal COVID relief funds is necessary for Maine and its residents to regain a sense of stability and security.  How though, we ask, will we know to whom the funds were allocated, how they were spent, and how Maine and its residents benefited? At present, there are no consumer-friendly sites that consolidate and track the many streams of funds. There should be.

Until then, perhaps this is the opportune time to get to know your legislators and ask them.

Luisa S. Deprez is Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. Lisa Miller is a former legislator and member of the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committees.

They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the KJ monthly.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.