Gov. Janet Mills’ new spending plan mostly ignores Maine’s roads and nursing homes

Governor Janet Mills poses for a photo in her office eating King Cake from Gov. Jon Bel Edwards (D – Louisiana).

AUGUSTA – When Governor Janet Mills spoke the most memorable line in her recent State of the State address, some people thought it was a precursor to her priorities in the upcoming state supplemental budget. It turns out, that wasn’t the case at all.

“Let’s fix the damn roads!” said Governor Mills in that speech.

But Maine’s roads appear set to take a back seat once again this year following Mills’ initial state budget, which offers very little additional funding relative to the reported need.

According to state officials, Maine’s roads and bridges need about $230 million more than Governor Mills provided in her initial state budget last year. Last year, Mills went so far as to cancel road construction projects because of cost. But the new spending plan Mills has put forward offers only about $10 million for transportation, a fraction of what is needed.

The problem has gotten to the point where Mills’ transportation chief recently said he is “competently managing a slow decline” of Maine’s roads until more funding is available.

At the same time, several avenues remain for Mills and her Democratic allies to raise Maine’s gas tax, add a variety of new toll booths to Maine’s highways or both.

Mills’ decision to essentially leave Maine’s transportation needs unfunded drew criticism from a top Republican on transportation issues.

“Members of both parties on the Blue Ribbon Commission have negotiated in good faith for months with the understanding that Governor Mills supported a substantial investment of General Fund dollars for our roads and bridge,” said Senator Brad Farrin, who serves on the legislature’s transportation committee.

“Today, she proposed spending all available General Fund dollars on almost everything but our transportation infrastructure. Her proposal effectively destroys all of the efforts of this bipartisan commission before we could complete our work.”

Mills offer of $10 million for transportation is barely 4% of what experts say Maine needs in a budget cycle to shore up the quality of Maine’s roads.

Some observers have speculated that Mills may be leaving roads underfunded as a plan to try and force Republicans to agree to a gas tax increase.

Another issue Mills has found herself facing criticism for is a lack of support for nursing homes and services for the elderly. After facing criticism for holding up a funding bill for nursing homes last year, Mills told the press the nursing homes “are ok.”

Then, two days before Mills was to roll out her new spending plan, the town of Farmingdale was rocked by news that a facility that cares for nearly 600 elderly Mainers was shutting down due to losses incurred from the combination of low reimbursement rates and a rising minimum wage. The non-profit says it is losing 40 cents to 50 cents for every hour of services provided and cannot sustain the losses any longer.

Governor Mills’ spending plan, two days later, would propose no additional funding for Maine’s nursing homes or senior care agencies.

“I have made caring for our elderly a priority for a long time and with nursing homes closing due to insufficient state funding, we are now seeing agencies that provide in-home health care fail for the same reason,” said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake.

“We can add tax collectors and buy a fourth helicopter for $2.5 million when the three we already own are not fully used, but the governor will not make a priority out of caring for the people who raised and cared for us. I don’t know what else we can do to get the governor to prioritize senior citizens.”

Leading Democrats in the Maine Legislature seem unfazed by Mills’ lack of funding for roads and senior care.

“The governor’s supplemental budget proposal provides a good foundation for our committee to get started,” said Senator Cathy Breen (D – Falmouth). “I look forward to working with my colleagues and really dig into this proposal. Over the course of the next month, we will be holding public hearings on each section of the supplemental budget to hear from experts and Mainers from across the state.”

Mills’ supplemental budget proposal would spend the entire current surplus, pushing the total state budget to well over $8 billion, nearly $1 billion more than the final budget under Governor Paul LePage.

Other pieces of Governor Mills’ supplemental budget will be covered by Maine Examiner in coming days.

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