Mills’ budget gives Republicans a chance to say ‘yes’

Gov. Janet Mills’ $127 million supplemental budget is both conservative and deferential to the Legislature – including its Republican members.

When she rolled out the plan, she bragged about the fact that the two-year state budget passed last year with bipartisan support and included no new taxes.

Her top priority, she said in her weekly radio address describing the new budget proposal, is adding money to the state’s reserve account.

Mills’ second priority, she said, is public health and safety. She’s proposed adding 14 new troopers and sergeants to the Maine State Police and 20 new positions at the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate and respond to child abuse and neglect.

Her third priority? Increasing funding for K-12 education, which will relieve pressure on property taxpayers. Her education initiatives also include wish lists from the business community to fund training and mentorship programs, money for the Maine Community College System and investment in the University of Maine System.

Bragging about no new taxes, adding to the Rainy Day Fund and increasing the number of cops?

Not exactly what you might expect if she’s trying to create a liberal-socialist utopia of free stuff.

Mills even includes $10 million from the General Fund to “fix the damn roads,” as she said in her State of the State Address.

Gov. Janet Mills delivers her State of the State address in Augusta on Jan. 21. (Natalie Williams | BDN)

Mills’ intention is clear. She presented a budget that she hopes can win support from Republicans and two-thirds of both the Maine House of Representatives and the Maine Senate.

That’s where she starts.

If Republicans are smart, they’ll quibble about transportation funding and waitlists for people with mental and behavioral health needs and try to get a few concessions here and there. But ultimately, Mills gave them a good deal if they can see it.

Here’s the thing: Unlike the two-year state budget, there’s no requirement this year for the supplemental budget to pass with a super-majority. Mills doesn’t need a single Republican vote. She could even lose a few Democrats and still pass her budget initiatives.

Mills is operating on the idea that if she governs as a moderate, she can bring Republicans along on some of her priorities.

There have been times during her first year and half in office when Mills has disappointed members of the progressive coalition that helped to elect her. On gun violence prevention, new revenues, labor issues and paid time off, the governor has moved toward Republicans and watered down her party’s positions.

Then in August, she got burned on bonds.

During the summer special session, the governor was clearly steamed when a deal she thought she had brokered on bonding fell apart. Republicans blocked critical investments in broadband, public lands and infrastructure. The GOP supported only a single bond for transportation.

At the time, Mills called the Republicans the “party of no,” clearly frustrated.

Bonds, unlike this budget bill, need two-thirds support from the Legislature. Mills is back with another attempt at a $15 million bond for broadband and an additional $100 million transportation bond.

She’s also looking for bipartisan consensus on how to fill a funding gap in the overall transportation budget – a sticky wicket that likely requires some type of new revenue stream.

Which is why, I believe, she’s playing nice on the supplemental budget. She even left a few million dollars unallocated for members of the Legislature to use as they see fit.

Mills has given Republicans and Democrats a clear path to a moderate budget and smart investments in transportation and broadband.

She’s shown she’s willing to hold off some of her progressive allies on issues such as expanded access to dental health care though Medicaid and paid family and medical leave.

And she’s laid her cards on the table, fully aware that her proposals will be open to criticism from the left and the right.

Now, the question is whether Republicans are ready and willing to make a deal. If they turn their backs on Mills’ budget and her bonding proposal, the governor may feel liberated to move to the left and to let Republicans answer to voters in November as the “party of no.”

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at