In rapid sequence, Legislature approves $76 million budget package geared toward pandemic
The measure includes $38 million more for Maine’s public schools, funding for coronavirus response and dozens of other new initiatives.
By Scott Thistle
Portland Press Herald
AUGUSTA — The Legislature approved a supplemental budget package worth about $76 million Tuesday, with funding earmarked to help the state respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The package includes funding for the Maine Centers for Disease Control to beef up its workforce, increased rate reimbursements for those working in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, additional funding for adult education programs and job training, and another $38 million for the state’s public schools.
Lawmakers also passed a special coronavirus omnibus bill extending certain emergency powers to Gov. Janet Mills that will allow her to have the upcoming June primary and other elections conducted by absentee ballot only, and also to waive state minimum public school day requirements as needed.
The bill also makes it easier for self-employed Mainers to gain access to no-interest loans from the Finance Authority of Maine and allows elected bodies to meet and vote remotely, suspending provisions in the state’s Freedom of Access Act that require they be held in person.
It also allows Mills to prohibit water and electric utilities from cutting of residential service for unpaid bills during the crisis, among other powers. All of the provisions will expire 30 days after Maine lifts its state of emergency.
The bill also expands eligibility for unemployment benefits for workers impacted by the virus, while also eliminating the one-week waiting period for benefits to start.
“Protecting the health and well-being of Maine people is a responsibility at the core of state government, and I am grateful to lawmakers for uniting in support of these measures so we can implement them swiftly,” Mills said in a prepared statement following the votes.
Mills also addressed both the House and the Senate before they adjourned, thanking them for their work and praising their bipartisan cooperation in a time of crisis.
“From the moment we walked through the State House doors this morning, our number one priority was to make sure Mainers were taken care of during this public health crisis,” said Senate President Troy Jackson, (D-Allagash).
Other State House leaders echoed that sentiment. “We are hopeful these measures will support a statewide response to the challenges posed by COVID-19,” said House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham, (R-Oxford). “As Mainers, we will get through these unprecedented times by supporting each other.”
Lawmakers hustled to complete their work in a ghost-town like State House that had been closed to the general public and left open only to lawmakers, their staff, security personnel and news media. The Capitol complex remained eerily quiet throughout the day Tuesday as the legislative process of passing bills between the House and Senate, which can take hours, proceeded with minimal delays, few objections and nearly no debate.
Early in the day House Speaker Sara Gideon, (D-Freeport), reminded lawmakers they were working under historically unusual circumstances, and thanked them and State House staff for putting their health at risk to help the rest of the state, which was grinding to a near standstill in response to the spread of coronavirus.
Gideon said there are still many unknowns facing the state and the nation.
“But what I do know is that we are all in this together and that we are all resilient,” Gideon told her colleagues.
In addition to coronavirus-related spending, the budget provides $2 million to career and technical education centers for new equipment, and the state’s community college network will receive an additional $2.5 million.
Another $1.5 million goes to the Department of Health and Human Services so it can hire an additional 20 child welfare caseworkers. The package also provides $5.5 million to the Department of Corrections to cover the cost of hepatitis C vaccinations for jail and prison inmates.
The supplemental budget also socks away another $17 million to the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund, with about $11 million being pre-authorized for Mills’ administration to use in response to the outbreak for unforeseen expenses.
Additionally, bills that cap the co-payment on insulin costs for those with diabetes to $35, offer additional protections to patients against surprise out-of-network emergency room bills, and set up a state-operated exchange for marketplace health care under the federal Affordable Care Act, were headed for approval in both the House and the Senate.
Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows school districts to continue to operate even if their budgets have not been approved by town meeting voters. Many towns in Maine hold annual town meetings in March to set municipal budgets and policies. Many of those meetings are being postponed in response to the pandemic.
A bill that would increases the death benefit from $50,000 to $75,000 for emergency first responders killed in the line of duty was also approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature.
Lawmakers also agreed to delay a statewide ban on the use of single-use plastic bags by retailers. Under an amendment included in the budget bill, that ban will not go into effect until January of 2021, instead of April of this year.
Dozens of other bills were left sitting in a legislative limbo, but still alive and available to be addressed if the Legislature is called back to a special session later this year.
Mills has said she intends to call the Legislature back into a special session to work only on priority matters as soon as it is safe to do so. But it remains unclear when that might be.