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Political Brew: Maine's budget, holding utilities accountable, and Biden seeks a boost

Our analysts this week are former state senator and Yarmouth town councilor, Republican Phil Harriman, and Democrat Ethan Strimling, a former state senator.

MAINE, Maine — Maine's $1.2 billion supplemental budget is signed, sealed, and delivered. A key provision will send $850 relief payments to roughly 850,000 Mainers. The budget includes income tax and property tax relief for seniors and some families.
It provides funding to test for PFAS chemicals and support Maine's lobster industry.

The bill drew enough Republican support to ensure passage by more than two-thirds of both chambers, giving lawmakers some bragging rights.

"If you're an incumbent and you're running for reelection," says Phil Harriman, "you're claiming victory for all of the goodness that's coming out of the budget as part of your reason to be reelected."

But he adds, "The rest of the story is what's going to happen after the elections, and perhaps these rosy numbers fall back to more normal flow. They may have to be talking about cutting expenditures."

"I think most people are going to be very happy to get the $850 checks. Of course, it's good politics," says Ethan Strimling. He would have preferred that money be spent on other programs passed by the legislature, but he adds, "Good for them, they all came together and passed a budget everyone could live with."

After some infighting among Democrats, they've come together behind a revised version of Gov. Janet Mills' bill to increase accountability for Central Maine Power and Versant Power. There would be penalties for failing to meet service standards.

Will this deal will take the wind out of the sails for CMP critics who want to turn it and Versant into a consumer-owned utility?

Strimling says this is a win for Mills, who "finally gets to say she's trying to crack down on CMP when it seemed like that was not something very important to her in the past."

But he adds, "I don't think it takes the wind out of the consumer-owned utility. The fundamentals are still there that it's a good idea."

Harriman believes it may take some energy out of the push for a takeover, "but this conversation is not over. It's going to continue."

This past week, President Joe Biden was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, talking about how the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last year will be beneficial to New Hampshire and Maine.

It was not officially a political trip, but it is part of a pattern of trips to battleground states, including a recent visit to Iowa.

Harriman doesn't believe this steady focus on the infrastructure law and its impact will help Biden or Democrats in the midterm elections.

"I think so much has unfolded already, between the way we exited Afghanistan, the border, cutting off our domestic oil production," he said. "I think those are already embedded in independents and Republicans. I don't think it's going to move the needle for them."

Strimling thinks Biden is correct to focus on the things governments can do to help Americans.

"This infrastructure plan is a great example of the bridges that will be built and the jobs that will be created," says Strimling. "I think President Biden is trying to say look; we need to focus on some of the important work that we've done to really try to improve working-class lives because he does need to move the conversation away from Afghanistan and some of the other issues that are hurting him."

Our analysts also discuss what lawmakers need to do when they reconvene for Monday's final day of the session. The expansion of Maine's "Good Samaritan" law, the failed effort to add an equal rights amendment to Maine's constitution, whether that fight should go on, and the Biden administration's efforts to move more people closer to student loan forgiveness.

Political Brew airs Sundays on NEWS CENTER Maine's Weekend Morning Report.