This year’s historic budget surplus offers a rare opportunity to invest in Mainers in ways that will have a lasting and tangible impact. While many of the funding initiatives proposed by the Governor are laudable, some critical areas that would support working families, address the opioid epidemic, reduce healthcare expenses, and increase access to higher education remain underfunded. By reducing the amount of money sent out as direct payments, deposited in stabilization funds, and transferred to the highway fund, the surplus can go farther and better target those who need it the most. Here are a few of the changes the Maine Center for Economic Policy recommends making to the supplemental budget:
Adjust one-time payments to target people with greatest need
The Governor’s plan allocates $682 million of the surplus to one-time $850 payments to benefit 80 percent of Maine households. The payments would be sent to single households with incomes under $75,000 and jointly filing couples with incomes under $150,000. Getting cash to households, particularly those with low income, can temporarily assist families with the increasing cost of food, fuel, and housing, but there are better ways to target Mainers who need help the most. We outlined an approach using the state’s sales tax fairness credit in an earlier blog which would cost a fraction of the Governor’s proposal and deliver the biggest income boost to those most in need.
Expand child care wage supplements
The Governor’s plan allocates just over $12 million for one-time wage supplements for child care workers in Maine. This is an important recognition that child care workers are chronically underpaid, but it only provides a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Maine needs ongoing sustainable investment in child care subsidies to create a system which is affordable for parents and pays a thriving wage for caregivers. Currently, the average cost of child care in Maine is so high that it only meets the definition of “affordable” for the wealthiest 12 percent of Maine families.1 At the same time, wages for care workers remain unacceptably low. In 2021, the median wage for some child care providers was as low as $14 per hour.2 Without access to affordable high-quality child care, parents’ ability to work and earn a living is severely hampered. In January and February of this year, almost two thirds of Maine parents with children under five experienced disruptions to their child care in the past month3. The only solution to a system which is unaffordable to parents even as it pays unacceptably low wages is a public subsidy. The Governor’s proposal is a step in the right direction, but Mainers need a comprehensive and ongoing solution to this problem.
Permanently increase funding for direct care, behavioral health, and substance use services
The Governor’s plan includes several important investments in direct care and behavioral health. The initiative to increase MaineCare reimbursement rates for direct care services is long overdue and an essential part of retaining and recruiting workers in this industry. The Governor’s change package also includes one-time funding to increase payments to behavioral health providers ahead of a future rate review. This is only a temporary fix to the underlying problem, and Maine needs to be committed to funding these services fully in future years, whether through a rate review or another process. Unfortunately, the supplemental budget does little to solve the ongoing crisis with drug overdose deaths in Maine. In 2021 there was a record number of overdose deaths in the state — estimated at 6364 — showing that we are still not doing enough to tackle the problem. We need to invest more in harm reduction and recovery services, including funding for detox and recovery centers and syringe service programs.
Expand MaineCare eligibility for children
The fundamental issue of accessing affordable care continues to be a huge concern for many Maine families. The historic budget surplus is an opportunity to expand access and reduce barriers to health care for a significant number of Mainers. LD 372 would expand eligibility in the MaineCare program for children to match the eligibility levels in many other states. It would also remove barriers to care, including monthly premiums and copays for existing enrollees.
Expand MaineCare coverage for immigrants
Last year, the Governor ensured children and pregnant women can qualify for MaineCare regardless of their immigration status, providing life-saving care to our most vulnerable friends and neighbors. The legislature should expand this initiative to include adults as well, as proposed in LD 718. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how public health depends on the wellbeing of all Mainers, and that excluding some groups from access to care ultimately hurts us all.
Fund paid family medical leave startup costs
Last year, the legislature established the Commission to Develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave Program, and its work could not be more urgent. The COVID-19 pandemic put unprecedented pressure on working Mainers to balance family and medical needs with their employment and paychecks. Many Mainers made the difficult choice to leave the labor force entirely to care for themselves or their family members during the pandemic. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, almost 66,000 Mainers are unable to work primarily because they must care for themselves, a child, or an elderly relative.5 Mainers would be spared this impossible choice with a paid family and medical leave program. While the commission’s work continues, funding startup costs6 demonstrates a commitment to supporting working families and ensures that the legislature is ready to hit the ground running when it has a policy proposal.
Increase eligibility for free community college
The Governor’s plan provides free community college for high school graduates impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, lowering the cost barrier that keeps so many students from attending or finishing college and reducing the debt burden on future generations of students. MECEP recommends extending eligibility to those who earn their high school equivalency, for example through the HiSET or GED tests. Students from households with low income and students of color are more likely to attain a high school equivalency rather than a traditional high school diploma.7 These students also have lower rates of college enrollment and completed degrees.8 Extending tuition-free schooling to this cohort would improve equity in opportunity for hundreds of students who face the greatest barriers to higher education.
Invest in community college educators
A vital component of the community college system is the dozens of adjunct professors who educate our students. A recent Portland Press Herald editorial spelled out the harsh realities for adjunct professors who teach three-quarters of the classes at community colleges yet are paid only an average of $2,650 per course without benefits or long-term job security.9 As policymakers prepare to extend the opportunity of community college to all high school graduates, the value of those who teach them should not be overlooked. Community colleges are vital workforce development institutions and opportunity creators, and our investments must provide living wages for the educators who power them.
Fund initiative to improve data collection and dissemination
Legislators, advocates, and everyday citizens rely on good data to make informed decisions for the people of Maine and to know how well our government is working. But when data is poorly defined or difficult to access, real people – not numbers – get left behind. For small population groups, such as communities of color in Maine, there simply isn’t a big enough sample size for federal surveys to produce a useful estimate. In some cases, the sample size is so small that the outcomes for people of color are deemed “statistically insignificant.” Data collected by the state can provide more detail but can be difficult to access. It can take agencies weeks or months to pull the data from outdated and disparate systems. Data used by one agency often doesn’t intersect with data collected by another, making it impossible to spot important ways that programs impact each other. LD 1610 would resolve these issues by improving the way the state collects data, allowing information to be shared more easily between departments, and making more data available for use by lawmakers and the public. Funding this initiative will greatly improve our collective ability to understand the needs of Maine people and the impact of government on Mainers, especially the most vulnerable.
 2021 Maine Child care Market Rate Survey https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/sites/maine.gov.dhhs/files/inline-files/2021%20Market%20Rate%20Survey_Final.pdf
 US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, Week 42. Education Table https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2022/demo/hhp/hhp42.html
 US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Data, week 42. Employment table 3.
 Fiscal note for LD 701 (128th legislature). After adjusting for inflation, the first year costs are estimated at $37,849,849 in 2021 dollars https://legislature.maine.gov/legis/bills/bills_128th/fiscalpdfs/FN070101.pdf