After eight years of frustration, division and a whole bunch of nonsense, Maine will start a new chapter next week when Gov.-elect Janet Mills is sworn into office.
Mills will be the first woman governor of the state, a Democrat with big majorities in both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate at a time when progressives are energized and starving for big changes.
The task of managing a transition and then jumping, head first, into running the state is always daunting, but by nature of the times – a criminal Trump administration in Washington and eight long years of missed opportunities in Maine — the expectations on Mills will be incredible.
State lawmakers have until Dec. 31 to submit legislation for consideration next year, but already the list is long and aggressive. It includes efforts to reduce college debt, attract new residents to the state, expand broadband, reduce poverty and childhood hunger and expand renewable energy, including solar power.
Mills herself has made strong commitments around major policy areas, including a promise to move immediately to expand Medicaid to more than 70,000 Maine people who Gov. Paul LePage nearly single-handedly denied coverage.
Then there’s the less glamorous work, which may be just as important – rebuilding state government after eight years of neglect and abuse. Critical areas, such as public health and child protective services have languished. Policy experts were replaced with political operatives, and huge numbers of dedicated public servants left government out of frustration or at the end of an ideological purge.
Mills is as smart and as tough as they come. A former district attorney, state lawmaker and attorney general, she knows the Legislature and the bureaucracy and how to navigate both.
She’s breaking new ground, nominating three women as her first three cabinet picks.
She’s picked a national policy expert, Jeanne Lambrew, for the Department of Health and Human Services; Kirsten Figueroa an experienced, highly respected civil servant for the Department of Administration and Financial Services, and a scientist to lead the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – if confirmed, Judy Camuso will be the first woman to head IF&W.
In addition to managing the confirmation of her cabinet and hundreds of positions to various boards and commissions, Mills will have to submit her first two-year state budget in February.
That’s no easy task. State revenues have been healthy, and there’s an opportunity for the new administration to make smart investments. But, as is always the case, there will be more need – more worthwhile ideas – than there will be money to support them all.
There’s pent up demand for big increases to K-12 education funding and revenue sharing, along with potential changes to the tax code to reduce the burden on property taxpayers.
There’s cash in the bank, but when the new governor looks into the economic crystal ball, there could be trouble brewing. The toughest job a governor has is telling people she agrees with “no,” even when there’s a good reason.
Under LePage, Maine lagged the country and the northeast when it came to recovering from the Great Recession. Now, Mills faces the inevitability of the economic cycle and, with the hot mess that is the Trump administration, states will likely face any coming financial trouble without a lot of support.
Expectations for Mills are sky high, the future is uncertain, and yet I go into the new year fully optimistic that the new governor and her administration can manage the expectations of friends, prioritize smart investments and keep a sharp weather eye focused on the future.