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Advocates, activities say social needs need more funding

As the state Legislature works on a new state budget, a coalition of social needs and activist groups are asking for an increase of spending of $400 million.

AUGUSTA, Maine — In her budget speech to the state Tuesday night, Governor Janet Mills said she is pushing for a kind of stay-the-course budget, as Maine slowly recovers from the economic damage of the COVID pandemic.

“My budget proposals do their best to hold spending steady and protect public health and education during the pandemic,” Mills said during the televised speech.

The Legislature has actually been working on the budget for weeks, as they look to balance the budget in the face of a projected $400 million decline in tax revenues over the coming two years.

But that isn’t stopping a dozen advocacy and activist groups from pushing for more funding for social program needs. The coalition of groups sent a letter to the Legislature Wednesday, urging lawmakers to increase spending by an equal $400 million to better fund those programs.

“We would argue that if our long term goal is to make Maine be the best Maine it can be we really need to be willing to acknowledge we've come up short in a lot of the areas and now is the time to secure the resources to live up to those criteria,” said Garrett Martin of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the lead organization in the coalition.

He said schools, people with intellectual disabilities, and other groups need added state support. 

Jess Maurer said Maine seniors are at the top of the list. Maurer runs the Maine Council on Aging and said critical services that help keep seniors in their homes—from Meals on Wheels to direct care workers—urgently need more funding.

“So we have to make a decision right now, in this legislative session,” said Maurer. “Are we going to let people who need services to get out of bed, to get fed, get their— are we going to let them go without service? If not we need to do something drastic and that is going to involve significant investment.”

Martin and the others in the coalition advocate for the Legislator to reverse some of the state tax cuts made over the past ten years and increase taxes on higher-income residents, in particular. He said that can raise the $400 million the groups say is needed. 

That may prove to be a tough sell with the Legislature, where any tax increase is likely to provoke a battle. 

“It doesn’t really matter what the moment is, Increasing taxes is a challenge, no matter what the circumstances,” said Sen Cathy Breen (D-Falmouth) co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Also, it would need to get support from the Governor, who has said multiple times she doesn’t support raising taxes. 

Garrett Martin said it’s a mistake for Maine to not fund needed services because would make us look like a high tax state. 

“What’s good for Maine’s image is making sure we secure the resources we need to support strong communities and invest in our people.”