Maine’s new supplemental budget focuses on coronavirus response

The Maine Legislature on Tuesday enacted a supplemental budget, appropriating an additional $73 million to fund key priorities before the biennial budget expires on July 1, 2021.

The supplemental budget is the product of extraordinary circumstance. In a normal second legislative session, budget negotiators would still be hammering out the budget’s details at this point in the calendar. However, legislators this year decided to use the supplemental budget as one vehicle for the state’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic that’s now arrived in Maine. As such, it was negotiated quickly and enacted early.

The supplemental budget won broad bipartisan support, including a unanimous vote from the Appropriations Committee.

While the supplemental budget package appropriates sorely needed funds vital in this moment of public health and economic crisis, it should be understood as only a first step in the state’s response.

Here’s a look at some of the budget’s highlights:

$1 million for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to cover the cost of testing and hire and retain public health nurses and epidemiologists to respond to the pandemic

Funding for these efforts is crucial for slowing and containing the spread of the novel coronavirus and for rebuilding public health infrastructure to prevent a similar outbreak in the future. The state is rebuilding its corps of public health nurses after former Governor LePage allowed staffing to dwindle to just 12 nurses across the state. As of last year, Governor Janet Mills’ administration had already filled 38 of 53 positions in the public health nursing program. The additional funding in the budget will help with these efforts.

$15 million to increase MaineCare reimbursement rates for direct-care providers

Maine’s network of direct care providers is one of the front lines of our health care system. These workers support Maine’s seniors and people with disabilities, who are at particular risk for the coronavirus, as well as children with behavioral health needs. Despite their crucial role, these health care workers often earn income that barely exceeds the minimum wage. The increased reimbursements will boost wages for direct-care workers, and will help the state attract more workers to address its health care workforce shortages.

$38 million in additional K-12 education funding

This is the level of funding proposed by Governor Mills in January. It brings next year’s school funding total to $57 million over the current year and moves the state closer to its requirement to fund 55 percent of the cost of essential programs and services at local schools. With this additional funding, Maine will fund 51.78 percent of local education in the 2020-2021 school year. This appropriation gives school districts peace of mind in keeping and paying staff in the face of mass school shutdowns, a move that’s important to support our school systems but also for stemming layoffs and their economic consequences.

Funding to support $120 million in new bonds

The supplemental appropriated debt service in anticipation of two bonds, both of which will have to be approved by voters. The first bond is worth $105 million and will fund investments in Maine’s transportation infrastructure. The second is worth $15 million and will fund expansion broadband across the state. These bonds ensure that Maine will make economy-boosting, job-creating investments in its infrastructure — and therefore its economy — during what is shaping up to be a pandemic-fueled recession.

$10 million for maintenance and repairs of the state’s roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure

Lawmakers rightfully recognize the need to start addressing our $232 million annual transportation infrastructure shortfall. The state has real unmet needs, particularly in bridge projects and highway reconstruction. However, as my colleague James Myall discussed in a recent blog post, a General Fund appropriation is the wrong approach to meeting Maine’s transportation needs. In the future, lawmakers should tackle the shortfall with additional fuel tax revenues and a long-term bond strategy.

$17.4 million for Maine’s Budget Stabilization Fund, commonly known as the “Rainy Day Fund.”

The additional appropriation brings the balance to $254.3 million, up from a previous balance of $236.9 million. The budget stabilization fund is an important tool to for the state during a recession. It funds rapid-response efforts and ensures continuity of critical services. However, even the most robust Budget Stabilization Fund alone is not sufficient to weather a lengthy recession. Lawmakers will likely have to consider revenue options to sustain the kinds of investments the state will need in these uncertain economic times.