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Gov. Mills' budget proposal covers wide range of programs with half of surplus

For the governor and Legislature, it's something of a bonus — a projected state revenue surplus for the coming fiscal year, presenting many political opportunities.

AUGUSTA, Maine — No matter how one spends it, $822 million is a lot of money.

For the governor and Legislature, it's something of a bonus — a projected state revenue surplus for the coming fiscal year, presenting many political opportunities.

On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills detailed what she thinks should be done with that money in her supplemental budget proposal to the Maine Legislature.

As outlined in last week's State of the State address, the governor wants to give half of it — $411 million — back to Maine taxpayers, in the form of one-time, $500 checks.

For lawmakers, including Appropriations Committee co-chair Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, the governor's plan simplifies their work a bit.

"Having the governor propose to give half of it back cut our workload in half," Breen joked.

Still, the governor's plan for the remaining money covers many areas of state government, funding a wide range of programs and services.

There is funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income households and increasing MaineCare reimbursement rates for health care services.

As announced by Mills last week, she also proposed to increase the pay of direct care workers and child care workers.

There are also proposed increases for hospitals, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities.

There are multiple proposals dealing with education, such as $30 million to create an education funding stabilization fund to ensure the state continues to pay 55% of the cost of local schools. The proposal for free tuition for certain Maine students at community colleges is included in a $42 million appropriation for an existing program to help reduce student debt.

The budget includes an additional $9.8 million for PFAS contamination cleanup.

And the second-largest item, after the refund, is $100 million in added funding to the Maine DOT to repair and improve roads and bridges, which would give that department the most significant repair budget in years.

The whole package now is in the hands of the Legislature, where Breen's committee will take the proposal apart and put it back together with whatever changes lawmakers decide to make.

Breen called the package "conservative, with a small 'c,'" and said that may be the correct approach.

"We are in unique times, and though revenues are high right now, we made big investments last year," she said in an interview. "We need to be cautious and make sure we can make good on those commitments going forward."

Republicans declined to comment on Tuesday's budget plan, saying they want time first to analyze the 250-page document. In last week's radio address, Senate GOP Leader Jeff Timberlake , R-Turner,  was critical of the governor's State of the State address, saying she was "looking at the state through rose-colored glasses" and not addressing fundamental problems being faced by many Maine people.  

Breen said she expects the Appropriations Committee will follow its usual practice of holding public hearings on the budget proposal and consulting with committees before recommending a final plan to the full Legislature.  

That process may need to happen relatively quickly, because there are only 2 months left in the legislative session.

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