[Governor-elect Janet] Mills vowed to end LePage’s declared (but unenforced) ban on permits for new land-based wind energy projects. And she strongly backs a University of Maine project that supporters contend could enable Maine to become a leader in the construction and deployment of floating, offshore wind turbines.
Maine’s government is set to make a dramatic pivot in 2019. Swept to sizable majorities in last week’s elections, Democrats will be in full control of state government for the first time since 2010.
They are poised to push for changes that will affect many aspects of Maine life. Tops among them will be an expansion of the state’s Medicaid system, MaineCare, making health insurance coverage available to 70,000 low-income people.
But Democrats are likely to look for ways to address climate change, refocus on cleaner air and water, support treatment and prevention of opioid addiction, restore revenue sharing to local communities, and take the pressure off property taxes.
At the helm will be Maine’s first female governor – Gov.-elect Janet Mills – as well as the state’s Democratic attorney general and a Legislature that is also going to include more female lawmakers than at any time in the state’s history.
Mills, herself a former state lawmaker, has said she intends to work in collaboration with legislators from both parties as she and other Democrats pursue their goals. She said members of her Cabinet will be available to the Legislature as well, unlike outgoing Gov. Paul LePage, who frequently restrained members of his Cabinet and their staff from appearing before legislative committees as they crafted and debated new laws.
“I want to be a governor of all the people of Maine,” Mills said Friday in a phone interview with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. She said the tone and the message coming from inside the governor’s office is going change dramatically and in a positive fashion.
“I promise, in my office, you will find an open door, an open mind and an open heart,” Mills said.
Here are some of the proposals Mainers will likely see:
TAXATION: Property tax relief among governor-elect’s goals
LePage worked to reduce the state’s income tax, gradually cutting the top rate from 8.5 percent to 7.15 percent. But he fell well short of his goal of eliminating the income tax entirely largely because of resistance from members of his own party over an expansion of the state’s sales tax. Mills said she has no intention of undoing LePage’s cuts, but she would look toward broadening the sales tax as way of lowering the income tax rate, still one of the highest in the nation.
Mills said she was heartened that the Senate’s new Republican leader, Sen. Dana Dow, seems open to the idea as well.
“I don’t have a specific plan to change the tax policy right now,” Mills said. “I’m not interested in increasing taxes.”
She said she is interested in providing Mainers with greater property tax relief. “But to do that I need to look at the whole budget,” Mills said. The budget will be her first major task when she takes the reins from LePage in January.
HEALTH CARE: Leaders want to improve state’s vaccination rates
Mills vowed to implement Medicaid expansion “on day one,” which would bring health care coverage to 70,000 low-income Mainers, mostly childless adults and working-class parents who don’t have insurance through an employer.
Medicaid expansion, health experts say, is key to improving Maine’s health care system in a number of ways, such as opening up substance use and mental health treatment to low-income Mainers, and boosting the financial stability of rural hospitals, which have a higher share of low-income patients.
Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York and House chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Mills will be a dramatic change after eight years of the LePage administration, which she said did not prioritize public health.
Other health care issues that could come up include improving vaccination coverage and hiring more public health nurses.
Mills said she is committed to rebuilding the public health network in a more aggressive manner than the LePage administration, which is under pressure from a lawsuit and has begun to hire more nurses.
“Of course some of it depends on workforce availability,” Mills said, “but we do need to reinvigorate public health nursing infrastructure, which really has been decimated under the current administration and I’m not sure why. We need to ramp up home visitation services. We are the only state in the nation with a rising infant mortality rate – that’s a problem right off the bat that’s got to be addressed – and beefing up the public health infrastructure is a part of the way we address that.”
Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, said eliminating or limiting non-medical exemptions for school-required vaccines will be one of his top priorities with Mills in office.
Maine consistently has one of the highest percentages in the nation of kindergartners who enter school without getting their vaccines, in part because Maine makes it easy to opt out.
“I’ve already submitted a bill,” Tucker said. “I think vaccines are very important, and I’m going to push this issue as hard as I can.”
Mills said she agrees with Tucker and others but is not completely familiar with the legislation he is proposing.
“We have a disturbingly low rate of vaccination in some parts of the state and we need to address that, too,” Mills said. “Public education, public messaging is very important to make sure people know there is no harm in vaccination, the harm is in not vaccinating.”
ENERGY POLICY: In reversal, support for wind and solar is renewed
LePage made lower energy costs a top priority yet also created a schism in the “green energy” sector by extolling the benefits of hydropower while railing against the wind and solar sectors.
Mills, by comparison, made renewable energy a central theme of her campaign.
On solar, Mills supports strengthening “net metering” policies that provide electricity price credits to homeowners who feed excess power onto the grid from their solar panels. While a controversial Maine Public Utilities Commission rule to phase out net metering is tied up in court, solar supporters and Democratic lawmakers are likely to try again for a legislative fix that LePage repeatedly vetoed.
Mills has also said she supports changing regulations to allow larger-scale solar projects and enable more users to tap into “community-scale” solar installations.
Mills also sees opportunities to expand the state’s efforts on helping Mainers weatherize their homes, convert to heat pumps or adopt energy-efficient technology without raising ratepayer fees.
Mills vowed to end LePage’s declared (but unenforced) ban on permits for new land-based wind energy projects. And she strongly backs a University of Maine project that supporters contend could enable Maine to become a leader in the construction and deployment of floating, offshore wind turbines.
One issue that Mills appears ready to jump into – and says LePage should steer clear of – is Central Maine Power’s controversial deal with HydroQuebec to route a 145-mile high-voltage transmission line through western Maine.
LePage was a proponent of the project and, last month, made a stopover in Spain during a trade mission to meet with executives of Iberdrola, CMP’s parent company.
Mills has expressed strong concerns about the transmission line’s impact on the mountains and river valleys of western Maine – her home region – and said the project needs to benefit Maine ratepayers.
“I think this governor needs to stop talking to HydroQuebec, CMP, Iberdrola and stop taking detours from Iceland to Spain. This is not for him to do,” Mills said Wednesday. “I think it’s for the next governor … to make sure that the people of Maine are heard, to make sure that if there is a deal cut, the people of Maine get the best possible deal. And I expect to be at the table.”
CLIMATE CHANGE: The Election Day message? ‘Voters … want action.’
After being relegated to almost non-issue status in recent state and national elections, climate change and other environmental concerns were back in the spotlight in the 2018 campaigns.
Mills often ranked climate change and the environment among her top priorities, as she did hours after her victory while discussing the significance of working with a Democratic majority in the Legislature.
Mills has called for setting an ambitious goal of reducing climate-warming pollution by 80 percent by 2030, although she has yet to work out the specifics. The current state goal is to reduce emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
“It’s a big item and it takes a lot of work,” Mills said Friday. “And I’ll be talking to people in the industry, the advocacy areas to put forward the best package I can.”
As attorney general, Mills also joined other states in challenging the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back environmental policies, such as the Clean Power Plan’s limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
“Voters sent a very clear message on climate change in Maine on Election Day, and that’s that they want action,” Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, said on Friday. Drouin’s organization spent more than $1.4 million on the campaign touting Mills and targeting Moody’s inconsistent statements on the issue.
Mills has also called for a significant new infusion of money into Land for Maine’s Future, which uses voter-approved bonds to help landowners conserve forestlands, farms and working waterfronts.
She has also pledged to be more proactive in seeking federal Forest Legacy funds to protect working forests from development. Maine had consistently led the nation in applying for and receiving Forest Legacy funding, but the state has opted to skip several application rounds under LePage.
SOCIAL SERVICES: Consult ‘forgotten heroes’ in decision-making process
After the deaths of two young girls last fall and winter, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was under the microscope for how it operated the child protection and foster care system.
The Legislature responded by passing a $21 million bill that increased the number of child protective caseworkers, boosted pay and also de-emphasized reunification with families. Current law requires child protection workers to make reuniting children with their family the priority after children are removed from a home.
Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a nonprofit, said she’s heartened by Mills’ election, and the promise of a new administration that will revamp DHHS. Berkowitz said depending on how the new law is enforced, having fewer family reunifications may not make for a better system.
“We have to be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way,” Berkowitz said.
Said Mills, “I’ll be getting information from the nonprofit sector, from foster parents generally and from the folks at DHHS who are dealing with this in the field, on the ground.”
She also said the child protection attorneys within her current office needed to be consulted with – after being generally shut out of decision making by the LePage administration.
“Child protection, child support, the homicide people, the drug prosecutors – these are incredible people,” Mills said. “It’s sad how we’ve been treated by the current administration; they are forgotten heroes in my book. They are a critical resource for me as attorney general, for me as governor-elect, for me as governor.”
BUSINESS & REGULATIONS: Encourage growth while improving workers’ lives
Mills has said the state cannot, and should not, attempt to solve every economic problem, but that it can play a critical role in providing technical, financial and training assistance to Maine businesses. Her plan is to streamline the state’s current “alphabet soup of economic development agencies” into a single entity called the Maine Growth Authority that would drive economic growth.
Mills also has said she wants to offer no-interest loans to businesses to finance their growth, create special districts to promote regional broadband internet projects, create tax incentives for in-migration of workers to the state and eliminate disincentives for out-of-state companies to let their employees work remotely in Maine.
“When I campaigned around the state I talked with many, many businesses from the very small to the very large,” Mills said. “We talked about their challenges, their workforce needs. We talked about nothing but very positive actions we can take to encourage businesses to come here, to encourage businesses to expand here.”
Still, there is “a tremendous amount of apprehension” among small-business owners about the makeup of Maine’s next Legislature, said David Clough, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Maine.
With Democrats holding a majority in both the House and Senate, the fear is that businesses will suffer a flood of onerous policy changes that Democrats have been waiting eight years to unleash upon them with Gov. LePage serving as the dam, he said.
“That’s going to create a lot of turmoil and a lot of angst,” Clough said.
Some in the business community remain hopeful that Mills will act as a moderating force, if not quite the pro-business champion LePage has been, he said. They are waiting for her to offer reassurances that the Mills administration will not bring about a radical departure from the status quo.
Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said Mills seems to share many of the top priorities of his organization.
“Health care, opioid concerns, dealing with our people, also the workforce issue, the broadband issue, things that really help strengthen our economy but also improve the lives of people,” he said. “They are frankly issues that should unite all of us regardless of our party affiliation.”
PUBLIC EDUCATION: Goals – increase teacher pay, set up universal pre-K
Mills, the daughter of a public high school teacher, has already identified a number of education priorities.
On the campaign trail, she said she would support increasing starting teacher pay at $40,000 a year, and would prioritize early childhood education programs, including universal pre-K, which is not currently mandated.
Mills said she would work to meet a 2004 voter mandate that the state pay 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education, a goal never reached.
The state’s funding formula, which divvies up state education funds for the local districts, can fall short and the fact is that many communities are regularly asked to increase taxes to meet local education budgets when state funding falls short. Mills has suggested easing the burden on property tax payers by increasing the circuit-breaker program, or fully funding the revenue sharing program – both sharply curtailed under LePage.
Mills has emphasized that she wants to take a collaborative approach and see departments work together to reach policy goals.
“I am about getting things done,” said Mills, who has four grandchildren in the public school system. “It’s deeply in my DNA to help the public education system in Maine.”
Mills also said she opposes using tax dollars for new charter schools, and wouldn’t support lifting the current 10-school cap on charter schools.
For higher education, Mills said she would focus on increasing completion rates and reducing student debt.
Under LePage, a number of education bills with bipartisan support were vetoed by the governor, and Democratic lawmakers on the education committee say they are hopeful some of those ideas will be supported under Mills.
Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said early childhood programs are a priority for her, including universal pre-K. She also hoped a Democratic-led State House would support two education bonds that were vetoed by LePage, one for school construction and one for equipment for career training and education programs.
Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said she also wanted to emphasize universal pre-K, and also resubmit a bill for comprehensive training and support to train administrators and build up a deeper bench for district and school leaders.
Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the issues he expects to surface are programs to support the social and emotional health of students, which ties in directly with Mills’ plans to address the opioid epidemic, and the new regional school service centers, which districts must join or have their state funding cut.
Mills also is proposing a state-sponsored job training program open to anyone, including those without a high school diploma, to get certificates or badges. The programs would be “intense training for six to eight week(s)” to prepare workers for entry-level jobs in high-demand fields, such as hospitality, construction or health care.
THE OPIOID CRISIS: ‘The first time I’ve been optimistic in eight years.’
Mills campaigned on a comprehensive, 10-point plan to alleviate the opioid crisis.
Dr. Lisa Letourneau, associate medical director of Maine Quality Counts, a health advocacy group, said she advised Mills on the opioid plan, and she’s optimistic it will work to ease the crisis. More than one Mainer per day has died of drug overdose deaths over the past two years, with 418 deaths in 2017. The opioid crisis has affected many aspects of public health, including Maine having more drug-affected babies and more patient use of emergency rooms for overdoses.
“The state has not had a plan to address the opioid epidemic,” Letourneau said. “Mills’ plan hits all the key points, including treatment and prevention.”
Mills’ plan would hike reimbursement rates for methadone treatment, boost services in emergency departments to get patients help when they leave the hospital, increase treatment capability, improve access to the opioid antidote naloxone, expand drug courts and increase prevention programs in schools, among other efforts.
“This is the first time I’ve been optimistic in eight years,” said Dr. Mary Dowd, who provides substance use disorder treatment for Catholic Charities and works at Milestone Recovery detox center in Portland. “It all sounds very good, and she understands evidence-based treatment. We just can’t be putting people in sober houses and hope that’s going to fix things.”
Staff Writers Joe Lawlor, Kevin Miller, Noel Gallagher and J. Craig Anderson contributed to this report.
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