How Janet Mills is using an under-the-radar spending plan to reverse LePage decisions

5 years ago

Before getting to work on Gov. Janet Mills’ controversial $8 billion, two-year budget proposal, the Legislature has to clear a small spending proposal from the governor that nevertheless contains a few important policy shifts.

The supplemental budget proposal from the Democratic governor mostly moves money around within government to cover new items with little new spending, but it contains three different reversals of former Gov. Paul LePage on addiction treatment and corrections policy.

Mills is using the budget to repeal limits on Medicaid-funded addiction treatment and turn a shuttered Washington County prison into a pre-release center. The new governor’s tenure has been marked by reversals of LePage, a Republican, most notably with the quick implementation of Medicaid expansion. She also set aside $1.6 million in state and federal funds in an initial part of a plan to combat the state’s opioid crisis.

Her supplemental budget would amplify that work and fulfill a campaign promise by repealing the state’s two-year limits on Medicaid coverage of medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. The methadone limit, which mirrored a prior suboxone limit, was put into effect under LePage in 2013.

Mills and Randall Liberty, the new Department of Corrections commissioner, have also promised to re-open Downeast Correctional Facility, the Machiasport prison that was closed in a rushed fashion — then briefly reopened — by the former governor in 2018. The supplemental budget would formally abolish Downeast, but slate a pre-release center for Washington County.

Among the other items in the supplemental budget are $2.5 million to share with cities and towns for disaster recovery, $1 million to celebrate the state’s 2020 bicentennial and more than $350,000 for the Office of the Public Advocate for expert witnesses to represent consumers in upcoming utility rate and billing cases.

The Legislature began work on the budget this week. The Legislature’s budget-writing committee began hearings on the supplemental budget on Wednesday, where it took testimony on energy issues and the bicentennial. Today, it will hear about Downeast and health and human services issues.

Today in A-town

The House and Senate return to session on this snowy Thursday, and a legislative committee hearing on a controversial education bill is likely to draw a crowd. Beginning at 1 p.m., the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs will hold a public hearing for LD 589, from Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Bradley. The bill seeks to bar public school teachers from wading into political, ideological or religious “advocacy” discussions in the classroom. It’s at least the second bill submitted this session aimed at constraining teacher behavior in the public school classroom. The first, LD 94, from Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, sought to criminalize teachers’ distribution of obscene material to students. It eventually failed in committee.

Lockman’s bill is more restrictive, seeking, for example, to block teachers from “singling out one racial group of students as responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students,” according to the bill. Tune in here, and find a full committee schedule here.

Reading list

— A Maine utility has sweetened its benefits package enough to win support from Maine’s governor for a $1 billion transmission project. As we reported last week, enhancements for ratepayers, electric vehicles and broadband expansion were enough to win Mills’ support for Central Maine Power’s proposal to run a $1 billion transmission line through western Maine to deliver hydropower from Quebec dams to customers in Massachusetts. Details of the benefits package were revealed today in a filing to state utility regulators.

— As congressional Democrats push a resolution opposing the president’s border wall emergency declaration, Maine’s senior senator said a lawsuit is the best way to fight it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced Wednesday night that the House will vote as soon as Friday on a resolution disapproving President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration. The resolution is expected to sail through the Democratic-controlled House. Its fate in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-to-47 advantage, is less certain. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, told the Associated Press that she would vote for the resolution but believes a lawsuit filed by attorneys general from Maine and 15 other states would be the quickest way to stymie Trump.

— A key bait fish for the Maine lobstering industry will be a lot harder to come by this year. Federal regulators drastically reduced the catch limit for Atlantic herring, a move designed to preserve populations of that essential bait fish. Maine lobster haulers and sellers, supported by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, are scrambling to find alternatives. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Wyatt Anderson, who has run the bait business at O’Hara Bait in Rockland since 1985. “They cut 60 million pounds. There’s nothing to replace that. This is catastrophic. I have no idea how this is going to work out. There will be days in September and October when guys won’t be doing a haul.”

— As promised, members of an embattled small-town fire department quit Wednesday amid concerns from county officials about how the department functions. Last month, Waldo County officials wrote to the Thorndike Select Board to share their concerns about leadership within the department and safety at fire scenes. Prior to Wednesday’s Thorndike Select Board meeting at which that letter was discussed, members of the 28-person volunteer department, which is not run by the town of Thorndike, made two requests from the town. They wanted the reinstatement as a firefighter of George Russell, the controversial former chief and de facto leader of the department who was singled out in the letter, and they wanted the release of roughly $85,000 from the department’s truck and equipment replacement fund. When town officials did not grant those requests, all but one member of the department resigned.

— Democrats picked their candidate for a special election to represent Bath in the Maine House of Representatives. Democrats from House District 52 chose Sean Paulhus as their candidate over Mari Eosco. In the April 2 special election to succeed Democrat Jennifer DeChant, who resigned on Feb. 1, Paulhus will likely face Republican Kenneth Sener and Libertarian Christopher Hallowell. Democrats have held the seat for eight straight terms.

My Dutch treat

Lately, like probably everyone, the cold has really started to weigh on me. Though I’ve staved off a good bit of the winter blues with my “project” of watching the entire Game of Thrones series for the first time (I finished season 6 last night. Email me if you want to talk about it.), mostly, it’s been a predictable slog.

I do, however, derive pleasure from the season’s forced coziness, namely the way it encourages me to eat warm broth-based dishes in the form of my choosing, which is chili, i.e. the excuse to put whatever I want in a pot and heat it up.

For Christmas this year, my parents gave me my equivalent of a Red Ryder BB Gun — an iron-enameled cerise Le Creuset dutch oven. It is sleek and flawless. I told my editor, Robert, that early in my ownership, it sat prominently atop my stove, too pretty to use. If I walked by and found a smudge, I cleared it away gingerly with a clean towel.

This lasted a few weeks, until I broke it in with chili. I videoed and took pictures of the entire ordeal, like an ebullient new parent watching her child take its first steps. I then sent the videos and pictures in a group text to my parents and brothers, who truly couldn’t care less. My mom texted back, “What is that?” to the chili, and then, “Nice!”

That was in mid-January, and I have not used my dutch oven since, but still on my stove it sits. Consider this my verbal promise to make my parents’ purchase worthwhile, before the winter months wane and standing over a bubbling pot of chili on a 13-degree night is the last thing any of us wants to do. Here’s your soundtrack. — Alex Acquisto

Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Robert Long. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to receive Maine’s leading newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings. Click here to subscribe to the BDN.

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