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Political Brew: Spending the surplus, changing voter-approved laws and getting back to work

Our analysts this week are longtime Democratic activist Betsy Sweet, and former Republican State Sen. Phil Harriman.

MAINE, USA — Gov. Janet Mills has unveiled her 'part two' budget, which uses an anticipated surplus of $930 million. One major priority is education. For the first time, the state would cover 55 percent of the cost of local K-12 education, something voters have demanded in statewide referendum votes over the past 17 years.

Betsy Sweet said that's important, as is an increase in revenue sharing to cities and towns, "so between those two things, the property tax burden is really going to be less."

But she would also like to see more money earmarked for direct care workers "and making sure that our most vulnerable are taken care of. But I think it's a really good plan. There's some real innovation in there. I hope it goes forward in a bipartisan way."

Phil Harriman thinks that will happen, and he agrees with the idea of a boost for direct care workers.

However, he's concerned that "eventually this new money from Washington is going to dry up, and the expectations that the state is going to pay these reimbursements for education are going to become a political challenge in the years ahead."

There is a bill in the legislature that would change Maine's constitution to make it harder for lawmakers to change statutes enacted by voters at the ballot box.

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Harriman and Sweet both think that's a bad idea.

Harriman said, "There are always circumstances that evolve or change that empower legislators to make amendments to the statutes...I think taking that away and hardening it into the constitution is fraught with problems they haven't thought through yet."

Sweet said setting a higher threshold for legislators to make changes could make sense, but not changing the constitution. She feels there is another important issue to address.

"I think we need to remember why so many things go to referendum, and that's because of people's frustrations with the legislature not doing what the majority of Mainers support."

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In light of disappointing federal job reports, leaders in Washington and Augusta are calling for going back to pre-pandemic rules about requiring people who get unemployment insurance to look for work.

"I compliment the president and Gov. Mills for making it clear to people that you've got to go look for work, and if you're offered work you need to take it. It's time for us to get back to work," Harriman said.

Sweet feels that overlooks some of the big reasons some people don't return to work—lack of affordable child care and low wages. She said an $8 an hour job may be fine for a teenager looking for a summer job, but "If you're someone trying to support yourself or your family, those are unlivable wages."

And she said until schools are fully back to in-person learning, there are many parents who can't just accept any job offered.

Political Brew airs Sundays on the Weekend Morning Report.