Committee Holding Hearings on $127 Million Supplemental Budget

For the next two weeks, the Legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee will continue to hold public hearings on Governor Janet Mills’ $127 million supplemental budget. The biggest-ticket item in the proposal is $32 million for K-12 education, which will move the state’s share of education funding up one percent from 50.78 to 51.78 percent, but still short of the 55-percent target set by a voter referendum in 2004. The measure also includes more funding for workforce training, higher education, additional state troopers, child protective services, services for adults with severe mental disabilities, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wastewater treatment, hazardous waste site cleanup and to help divert people with severe mental illness from jail and emergency rooms.

“This supplemental budget is balanced. It does not create new programs. It takes care that one-time monies are used for one-time needs and that we fulfill our obligation within existing programs to take care of our schools, child welfare and public safety needs,” said Mills in a recent radio address. “As the Legislature puts their own fingerprints on this document, I hope that they do so with caution, balancing the health and safety of Maine families and our workforce needs with the long-term health of the state.”

In press releases and on the radio, Mills has repeatedly emphasized that $20 million of the $126.6-million revenue surplus would be added to the $30 million already in the state’s rainy-day fund — a pot of money set aside for economic downturns.

Nevertheless, Republicans argue that the spending is too high and that several of their priorities are not addressed in the budget.

“Our view is that large spending increases, coupled with a heavy reliance on one-time monies will likely result in increased taxes in future years,” said Rep. Sawin Millett (R-Waterford), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “This is especially true if the economy slows, or there is a major emergency. For months, Republicans have pointed out that core priorities such as our roads and bridges, nursing homes, and individuals with disabilities on wait lists have been overlooked in favor of spending on new priorities that focus on ‘wants’ rather than ‘needs.’”

Millett pointed out that the state’s aging transportation infrastructure is underfunded by about $232 million annually, though Republicans have fiercely opposed any gas tax increases or even indexing the current tax to inflation to repair roads and bridges. Instead, they argue that more one-time money should be used to fund those projects. Mills also is backing a bond package that would ask voters to approve borrowing another $100 million to fix roads, which both parties point out is merely a stopgap measure as the state manages the decline of its transportation infrastructure.

House Fails to Override Veto of Sports Betting Bill

The Maine House failed to garner the two-thirds vote necessary to override Governor Janet Mills’ veto of a bill (LD 553) to legalize sports gambling in Maine. Previously, the Senate overrode the veto but only because Sen. Lisa Kim (R-Oxford County) accidentally voted to override. In her veto message, Mills wrote that she is “unconvinced at this time that the majority of Maine people are ready to legalize, support, endorse and promote betting on competitive athletic events.”

Conservatives argued that the measure would lead to an epidemic of gambling addiction. Speaking to WABI TV, Rep. Scott Strom (R-Pittsfield), the bill’s co-sponsor, said  he lobbied his colleagues hard to support the measure, but “… we have a lot of representatives down here that need to get permission today from the Maine Christian Civic League before they can vote for a certain bill and they just didn’t get that permission today and that’s why they voted their ‘no’ vote.”

Strom’s comments infuriated far-right Rep. Larry Lockman (R-Bradley), who said he doesn’t “need anyone’s permission to vote for or against any bill.”

“[Strom] has a history of making wild accusations against unnamed fellow Republicans, and then sprinting for the tall grass when he’s called out,” Lockman wrote. “This appears to be a case of sour grapes. Strom has so little influence in the House GOP caucus that he fell way short of getting the votes he needed to override the veto.”

Speaking in favor of the bill, independent Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship argued that sports gambling is already happening, so at least the state would be able to get some revenue from it.

“We can’t legislate fun,” he said. “People have fun doing this and they’re going to do it whether we legalize it or not.”

Bill to Create Mental Health Crisis Centers

The Health and Human Services Committee will take up a measure on February 24 that aims to address the shortage of facilities to treat people suffering a mental health emergency. LD 803, sponsored by Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), would establish four crisis intervention centers throughout the the state that would be operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The centers would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.