Opinion

Expectations for Mills’ big speech: Part spreadsheet. Part policy. Part poetry.

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Gov. Janet Mills has set a blistering pace on a lot of big policy matters since taking office last month, including moving quickly to expand access to health care to more than 70,000 people.

But that initiative, as important as it is, was passed multiple times by the Legislature and by the voters of Maine. Mills kept her promise to take action.

With the release of her first two-year state budget and her budget address – which is often called the State of the State – on Feb. 11, Mills will introduce her first major piece of legislation.

The budget is the governor’s opportunity to set the priorities for the state for the next two years and describe how she would spend roughly $7.2 billion in the general fund.

There are three truths about the state budget, regardless of which political party controls the Blaine House or the Legislature:
While there are often big fights about the spending bill, the vast majority of the governor’s budget will be adopted without objection. Members of the Legislature uniformly hate the inclusion of policy in the budget, while governors use the must-pass nature of the budget to implement their policy priorities. And, there is never enough money to accomplish everything either the Legislature or the governor hope to accomplish.
In the current two-year budget, funding for K-12 education accounts for almost 30 percent of state spending while Medicaid accounts for about 22 percent. With Medicaid expansion already in the works, Mills’ budget will account for the state share of the cost.

Other big questions on the table will be how much to increase funding for education and to what level to restore state funding that’s shifted back to municipalities in the form of revenue sharing.

State revenues are projected to increase for the next two-year budget but the price tag of increasing revenue sharing to 5 percent is more than $200 million over the next two years, while achieving the to-date-mythical 55 percent funding for K-12 education would cost about $150 million more.

Even with a strong economy, low unemployment and projected revenue increases, Mills will be left with a number of tough choices.

And while the economy seems to be humming along now, there are undercurrents that should raise concerns. The stock market is all over the place (for your own sanity, don’t look at the year-end numbers on your 401(k). Just don’t). The Trump trade wars are increasing uncertainty, some middle-income families are starting to feel the real impacts of the tax scheme and our leaders are starting to come to terms with the fact that our economy is based largely on labor and energy costs that are artificially low.

One of the hardest jobs for any governor is saying no to ideas, initiatives and supporters with whom she agrees. And in simplistic terms, that’s what a two-year state budget is: Saying “yes” to some things and “no” to a whole lot more.

Mills will have a chance to speak directly to the Legislature and to the entire state during her budget address next Monday. The speech, which is full of pomp and formality, gives the governor the chance to make the case for her priorities and explain her positions.

In Maine, there aren’t too many occasions for politicians to give big, impactful speeches. Our politics are more closely tied to town meetings and town halls than to stadiums and live TV.

But on Monday, Mills will have the attention of the state to make her case. Based on the way she’s approached the task so far, I expect her to lay out a vision for the state — and the budget — that is hopeful, aspirational and uplifting. She’ll have to say no to a lot of folks, but I think she’ll make the most of the places she says yes.

Part spreadsheet. Part policy. Part poetry.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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