Maine legislators divvy up limited money for popular, unfunded programs

Special appropriations for veterans’ homes, training childcare workers. dairy farmers
Maine State House
Maine State House(WABI)
Published: Jul. 15, 2023 at 9:24 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Maine (WMTW) - Following Governor Janet Mills’ signing the remainder of Maine’s $10.3 biennial budget on Tuesday, state legislators spent the rest of the week deciding how to spend a leftover $11.5 million.

That’s because every bill passed by the House and Senate this year was not funded.

So, the Appropriations and Financial Affairs committee reviewed 266 such bills and rejected the vast majority—including approved proposals to make diapers tax-free, to test well water for toxic PFAS forever chemicals, and to raise starting public school teacher pay to $50,000 over the next five years, which the teachers’ union had supported.

Grace Leavitt, President, Maine Education Association, said in an interview Friday, “It’s been very difficult for districts to not only to recruit educators but also retain educators. The shortages have an impact, most of all, on our students, but also take a toll on educators, who are covering for when their vacancies aren’t filled.”

One reason legislators were willing to delay the raise was that starting teacher pay went up to $40,000 just three years ago for the 2020-2021 academic year.

However, Leavitt noted, before that, the starting salary had been stuck at $30,000 since 2007.

Leavitt said, “There is still a teacher pay gap of 24, 25%. So, somebody with comparable educations and credentials in other professions are paid that much more.”

Overall, state spending on education has risen since Mills took office in 2019, now fulfilling a requirement to cover 55% of local public school costs.

The state is also on the verge of rolling out its $60 million relief fund, approved last year, for farmers who own PFAS-contaminated land.

The committee approved $2.6 million to keep veterans’ homes open, $1 million for childcare worker training and services at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, and $500,000 for dairy farmers coping with inflation, in addition to $1.5 million approved in the budget.

Annie Watson, a dairy farmer in Whitfield and President of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said in an interview earlier this year, “The price of electricity, the price of fuel – all of the things we’re seeing rise in our own consumer world are also impacting our farms as well.”

According to Watson, 25% of Maine dairy farms went out of business in the past two years, and only 154 are left.

The committee approved $500,000 to support bottle recycling reforms to streamline container sorting requirements intended to grow the state’s 70% redemption rate and to fund Department of Environmental staff until positions can be funded by unclaimed deposits.

A lobster innovation fund received $50,000 seed money to test gear compliant with forthcoming federal regulations.

Also approved were a raise for the next governor’s salary from a nationwide low of $70,000 to $125,000 a year and funds to conduct a referendum over changing the design of the state flag.

Rejected bills can be re-considered for funding next year without having to go through committee hearings or House and Senate floor votes again.