State of Maine: “March toward normalcy” an opportunity to strengthen bipartisanship 



In what she called a “march toward normalcy,” Governor Janet Mills delivered her State of the State address live to legislators on Feb. 10. A march toward normalcy it may be, but her march down the aisle of the Maine House of Representatives, her first live State House address in two years, reminded viewers that we are not yet out of the woods, with legislators all masked and the Governor fist-bumping her way down the aisle rather than shaking hands. 

On display were the ceremonial aspects of a gubernatorial address that freshman members of the 130th Legislature have not previously experienced, from the introduction of various dignitaries to the thundering announcement of the Governor’s arrival by a military officer from the rear of the chamber. 

The joint convention is held in the House, the only space in the building large enough to host 186 legislators, but it is presided over by the president of the “upper body,” currently Senate President Troy Jackson, a man with a wicked arm with a gavel. He brought the Governor to the podium to sustained applause from legislators, who issued another round when she opened with a heartfelt: “It’s good to be back!” 

This State of the State precedes the November gubernatorial election, and for an incumbent running for re-election it is the golden opportunity to showcase what she sees as her major accomplishments and offer a taste of what she would do in a second term.  

Rather than an extended declaration of how and why Democratic plans and programs are better for Maine than those of Republicans, Governor Mills chose to showcase accomplishments and proposals that might find favor on both sides of the aisle, with a nod to many priorities Republicans have long espoused. 

A record budget surplus, a Rainy Day Fund that has doubled to its highest level ever, no tax increases and a GDP that is ahead of the pace nationally and in New England are all staples of the Republican diet. Yet she touched all the buttons for Democrats, too, including outdoor education, health care, child care, tuition-free community college, the inflationary escalation of electric and grocery bills and more. 

Republicans have long called for returning excess revenues to taxpayers. Governor Mills named two such Republicans and said: “I think they’re right.” She proposed returning half of the budget surplus, $411 million, back to the people in the form of $500 checks to about 800,000 Mainers. 

This puts Republicans in a challenging position. They can hardly object to the proposal, but they do not want to offer praise for a candidate they will oppose in November. Former Governor Paul LePage, now declared as Mills’ opponent for the Blaine House, managed to find a way. According to him, instead of using the surplus for $500 checks, Mills should have lowered the income tax rate. 

The trouble with that, of course, is that the $500 checks are a one-time use of one-time money, much of the surplus consisting of federal COVID relief money. Reducing the income tax rate has an ongoing impact and would be problematic in future years. Nevertheless, cutting or even eliminating the income tax was a signature issue for LePage when in office, though he could never muster enough support to enact it. 

Who would not welcome a $500 check? But is that the best use of $411 million in Maine? It would have a positive, if transitory, impact on the Maine economy, but considering the major infrastructure needs of our state, not to mention the housing crisis, would addressing some of those projects give us a better return? 

Another proposal that will be hard for Republicans to reject is the first time ever, full funding of the state’s agreed-upon 55 percent share of the cost of K-12 public education, plus a fund akin to the Rainy Day Fund just for education to smooth out variations in revenue and keep to the 55 percent. Likewise, her support for the efforts of Republican Rep. Matt Pouliot to help relieve student debt will give Maine “the leading student debt relief program in the nation.”  

The one area where Governor Mills was not about to yield was on the pandemic restrictions she initiated. Mills cited a long list of professional health-care organizations – and the Supreme Court – that supported the measures, telling opponents: “They all disagree with you. And they can’t all be wrong.” 

While Paul LePage is giving every indication of continuing to harden the line between the parties, Governor Mills’ State of the State address recognized the opportunity to unite Maine by blending the priorities of factions that customarily look at each other as “the opposition.” It is a maturing of the political chops that put Governor Mills in office and may gain her the coalition she needs to stay there. 

 

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County. 

 

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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