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Gov. Janet Mills won’t admit how much she increased state spending in radio interview

Governor Janet Mills poses for a picture while at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland in October. Photo courtesy Governor Janet Mills Facebook page.

WATERVILLE – Never mind those articles you have read saying Governor Janet Mills’ new state budget increased spending by a record amount. The actual numbers in the budget that show an increase of more than 10% in state spending, almost $1 billion don’t matter either.

At least, that’s what it seemed like when she was asked about it during a recent radio interview.

In an interview on The Mike Violette show on the Legacy 1160 WSKW radio station out of Waterville, host Mike Violette asked Mills point blank about the state budget, “Speaking of budgets and such, your budget that you and the legislature agreed to is a billion dollars more than the last LePage budget. How do you spend a billion dollars more?”

Mills tried to deflect, talking about the stabilization fund and payments to the federal government for the Riverview Psychiatric situation, even though she said earlier in the interview that the Riverview money was set aside before she ever took office.

“But a billion dollars more. Would you agree it’s a billion dollars more?” interjected Violette.

“Uhhh. I can’t assent to that because I’m not really sure that that’s accurate,” said Mills. “But, regardless, the revenues are up, the revenue forecast was very robust and we’re waiting for the next revenue forecast coming up next month.”

“But is that a sustainable thing for you through your four years as Governor, to raise the budget that much?” asked Violette.

“You talk about the budget – we talk about what we did on a bipartisan basis,” responded Mills.

Mills then went on to talk about revenue sharing and what she called “Property tax relief” which Mills said was $75 million. According to an official release at the time, the $75 million Mills referenced is not entirely guaranteed to provide property tax relief, as it includes revenue sharing increases to local municipalities. Most revenue sharing increases have historically resulted in towns spending the additional revenue and still raising property taxes.

“We’re not out shopping and buying good things with that money, we’re paying back the taxpayers,” said Mills.

In fact, there were a couple of changes in the state budget that expanded existing property tax exemptions for a narrow number of Mainers, but not enough to play a significant role in growing the state budget. The recently touted property tax rebates announced by the Maine State Treasurer and credited to Speaker Sara Gideon were actually drawn from a fund created under Governor Paul LePage before Gideon or Mills took office.

It was unclear from the interview what other pieces of her budget Mills was trying to claim were “paying back the taxpayers”, but a review of Mills budget shows income and sales tax rates were not reduced. The programs Mills cited as the justification for the size of her budget increase represents just a small fraction of the overall spending increase in the state budget.

Ironically, after claiming the revenue sharing was part of a $75 million “property tax relief” effort, Mills went on to say, “Now, I can’t control what the towns do with the money, necessarily.”

Mills also complained about paying vacation and holiday pay to the appointees of Governor Paul LePage that have left their jobs.

Violette interjected, “That happens in every administration.”

“No, no, no it doesn’t,” said Mills, despite the fact that it is official state policy to pay employees for unused vacation and holiday pay at the end of their employment.

Mills then quickly moved on to talking about indigent legal services and other expenses that had not been approved in previous state budgets.

“So let me get this straight, you’re blaming some of this on LePage?” chuckled Violette.

In attempting to blame the spending on Governor Paul LePage, Mills described two expenses that amount to about 3% of her total state budget increase. She then moved to talk about how the state was spending $125 million in the state budget to draw down federal funds for health care.

Near the end of the interview, Violette asked Mills why, if there was nearly $1 billion in new spending in the state budget, did the state need to borrow $105 million to fix the roads with a bond passed earlier in the month.

Mills attempted to shift the blame to the Maine Legislature’s Transportation Committee, “Look, I did what the transportation committee recommended.”

But numerous statements from Republicans, including the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Senator Brad Farrin, show that they believe some of the surplus from Mills’ budget should have been allocated to Maine’s roads and bridges.

In a September statement in which he also suggested that Governor Mills wants to raise Maine’s gas tax, Farrin said, “It is past the time when state government should simply pay for our transportation costs the way we pay for most other top priorities, by funding them in the biennial budget.”

Farrin also asked a question about the lack of prioritization for transportation funding in the budget.

“What higher priority items did state government spend a billion dollars in surpluses and budget increases on?”

As the interview neared conclusion, Mills said we need to do more reconstructing roads, not just resurfacing. Mills cited current national rankings of Maine’s roads as justification for that statement.

It’s unclear how the recent state budget spending increases, which did not provide any new transportation funding, would accomplish any of the road reconstruction Mills says is needed.

The interview ended without Governor Mills ever admitting how much her state budget actually increased spending or answering whether those increases are sustainable during her time as Governor.

You can listen to the full 13:51 radio interview on SoundCloud here.

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