AUGUSTA – State documents show that as Governor Janet Mills was beginning the process of shutting down the state’s economy, ultimately triggering an unprecedented budget shortfall, she quietly approved numerous financial orders to spend millions of state dollars unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic.
The orders have drawn criticism from the non-profit group Maine People Before Politics. They are pointing to a projected 22.6% state revenue shortfall and the failure of the state to provide unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of Mainers as evidence of the Governor’s misplaced priorities on the spending.
A review of the various financial orders shows more than half a million state dollars spent on purchasing marsh land and other land for the state, the purchase of a $9,000 frying machine for a state park and about 30 intern positions for roles unrelated to the pandemic, as Mills was issuing orders to shut down the state due to COVID-19.
The first round of financial orders, totaling more than $8.9 million, were issued on March 26, ten days after Governor Janet Mills had declared a state of civil emergency, closing schools and limiting the size of gatherings. Beyond the civil emergency declaration, Mills also canceled St. Patrick’s Day events, closed all restaurants and eventually closed all non-essential businesses before spending the nearly $9 million on non-coronavirus related matters.
Mills also at least twice made entreaties to the federal government, once for additional testing supplies and Personal Protective Equipment while preparing the financial orders approved on March 26. On March 19, Governor Mills sent a strongly worded letter to Vice President Mike Pence and HHS Secretary Alex Azar saying that states should “not have to struggle” providing supplies to front line workers.
A few days later, Mills wrote President Trump pushing for help for Maine’s fishing and seafood industry.
In total, Governor Mills has approved more than $9.1 million in state spending through financial orders.
Among those orders were three expenditures approved on March 26 acquiring land. One order spent $325,000 to acquire land in Burnham, Frankfort and Harrington to increase access to lands supporting “game and nongame species.”
Another order spends $175,000 to buy three parcels of land to build future boat launch sites and puts some revenue toward fixing and constructing seven other boat launch sites.
A third order for land acquisition spends $60,000 purchasing land to “provide a buffer” to the Mercer Bog Wildlife Management area.
Land acquisitions do not constitute a majority of the orders, however. More than half of the thirty-six orders issued in the two batches deal with funding new positions in state government.
Two of the positions Mills approved are for interns who will update the state’s records on the dimensions and sizes of the rooms in the Department of Labor’s buildings for the purposes of ensuring state leases are accurate. Another intern, funded by Mills through the Maine Department of Policy Innovation and the Future, will work on Governor Mills’ signature “Welcome Home” program. In the same order, Mills funded an intern to help with opioid addiction and an intern to assist in studying the impact of climate change.
Climate change and the environment are significant focus of Mills’ financial orders. In addition to funding a position through the Department of Policy Innovation and the Future to help study climate change, Mills also funded five positions at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and one at the Department of Marine Resources.
On top of that, Mills’ dedicated funds to create the paid position of Transportation Climate Coordinator on the Maine Climate Council, the sprawling council formed by Mills in 2019. A note on the order says that position will be funded by a grant from the United Nations.
In another apparent climate change related move, Mills takes money from the Military Training and Readiness portion of the National Guard Budget and creates three intern positions to help with Energy Audits at Maine Army National Guard facilities across Maine. Those interns will also survey wetlands and conduct “acoustic bat studies.”
Maine’s tourism industry may be shut down under Mills’ stay at home order and specific prohibitions on hotels and motels, but the Maine Office of Tourism will have a new person to help coordinate outreach, research and documentation of the “Community Destination Academy.”
In the vein of tourism, Mills also made sure Sebago State Lake Park would have a new food fryer. On March 26, Mills approved a financial order taking $9,000 from the Blind and Visually Impaired budget to purchase the fryer for the park “to provide customers with fast food in a timely and efficient manner.”
Among other items, one order from Mills moved just over $3 million around to cover payroll at DHHS while another was an order to cover payroll in Adult Education. The sole order dedicated to transportation, the largest of the group, was a redirection of residual cash left over from other transportation project financing. Mills redirected those funds, $5 million total, to other road and bridge repairs.
Marine Anglers will be answering questions from May to October about their catches as a result of nearly $39,000 Mills sent to the Department of Marine Resources to survey those anglers on their catches.
That order drew criticism from Maine People Before Politics, who hit Mills for spending money through the orders at a time of crisis.
“That’s right, Janet Mills approved $600,000 in the middle of this crisis to buy land and survey people who fish for fun,” said a statement from MPBP.
“Many have gone without paychecks or unemployment benefits for a month,” says the statement. “Yet, since the crisis began, Governor Mills has taken a different action, signing off on hundreds of thousands of dollars in state spending between March 15 and April 13.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on Maine’s economy, expenditures to deal with anything remotely related to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases or illnesses are but a tiny blip on the screen in Mills’ financial orders. Only one of the thirty-six orders, an expenditure of $50,000 for a Roche MagNA Pure LC 24 instrument, can be connected to COVID-19.
That machine extracts nucleic acid from specimens to help with outbreak detection and tracking, and to help patients with unknown illnesses. It is one of the smaller Roche machines in use for COVID-19 testing.
For all the accusations and airtime spent on claims of personal protective equipment shortages, the Roche instrument was the only expenditure related to the state’s response to the pandemic among the more than $9 million in financial orders Mills signed. Ultimately, that means about ½ of one percent of the funds Mills spent through financial orders went toward dealing with the pandemic.