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Rent relief, election support, teacher raises dominate week one of budget hearings


Rent relief, election support, teacher raises dominate week one of budget hearings

Feb 24, 2024 | 5:54 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton Emma Davis
Rent relief, election support, teacher raises dominate week one of budget hearings
Entrance to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee room in the Maine State House in Augusta. (Jim Neuger/Maine Morning Star)

Following the release of Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed changes to the biennial budget for fiscal years 2024-2025, known as the supplemental budget, legislative committees got to work with a series of hearings that highlighted their funding priorities, as well as how state agencies and the public are aligning — and diverging — with the governor’s suggested appropriations.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee will ultimately consider the committee proposals in light of the governor’s draft and put together a spending package they hope that Mills and majority of lawmakers can support.

Hearings on the supplemental began in the budget-making committee on Tuesday with testimony largely in opposition to the $107 million savings Mills’ proposed. 

This initial week of hearings also included feedback on sections of the budget under the purview of committees on education, business, taxation, veterans and legal affairs, and housing. 


The most broadly applauded education measure included in Mills’ proposed budget was the decision to maintain state funding of 55% of K-12 education costs. 

This has been a state requirement since 2004, when voters passed a referendum, however the state was not doing so until 2021, when the budget included funding to ensure as much, in part with the help of federal COVID-19 pandemic relief. 

However, educators, union representatives and policy analysts expressed concern about the lack of funds dedicated to raising teacher and education support staff pay.  

Stephanie Griffin, an educator in the Downeast region for 12 years, said she lives paycheck to paycheck and told the committee she is “on the verge of becoming another statistic of teachers who walked away and never looked back.” 

Arthur Phillips, economic policy analyst for Maine Center for Economic Policy said educators are falling behind entry-level workers in the private sector but also peer educators in nearby states. The average teacher salary in Maine is lower than every state in New England and more than $3,700 below the national average, Phillips said, citing a report from the Maine Education Association. 

Ensuring comparable funding among Maine institutions was also a concern, as educators from the Maine Maritime Academy Academy told the committee that it receives below the average state funding of its peer institutions in Maine. Sen. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth) proposed a bill to equalize that funding, which was heard in the Education and Cultural Affairs committee last month. 

Other concerns centered around the plan from the Maine Department of Education presented last month to restructure how the state provides special education to its youngest residents.

Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business

Because of the 84,000 new housing units planned for the next decade, the Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee heard testimony about the need to better fund elevator inspection services.

Commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation Anne Head requested $215,000 to hire two additional elevator inspectors, explaining that the department currently has only three elevator inspectors for the entire state. Right now, the wait time for a new housing development takes two to three weeks. 

However, Head also noted that Maine’s current salary for inspectors, $50,000, is significantly lower than the upwards of $150,000 someone could make doing the same work in another New England state. To make Maine competitive, elevator inspector jobs will need to be reclassified, but Head said she will need to work with the Bureau of Human Resources on that. 


Last year the Maine Cancer Foundation raised $1.9 million for its annual triathlon fundraiser known as Tri for a Cure. But with that, the organization spent $10,000 in sales tax alone to bring the event to life, said Deputy Director Kelly Martin.

Instead of having to spend money on sales tax, the organization could use that money to provide gas cards to get people from Aroostook County to Portland for cancer treatment. Or it could provide lodging for someone who gets daily radiation treatment two hours from their home. 

While many nonprofit organizations are exempt from sales tax, the Maine Cancer Foundation and others are not. That’s why Martin and other nonprofit leaders who work with veterans, survivors of sexual assault and others testified before the Taxation and Appropriations committees in support of the blanket sales tax exemption included in the budget for all 501c3 organizations in Maine. 

“The current sales tax exemptions are unfair, they are unusual, they are confusing and they are inefficient,” said Mary Alice Scott, public affairs manager for Maine Association of Nonprofits.

The committees also heard support for a proposal (LD 1714) to fund recovery community centers using a percentage of cannabis tax revenue, which has been on the special appropriations table since it was passed by the Legislature last year. 

Dozens of people at various stages of recovery spoke about the life-saving support they found at recovery community centers like the Bangor Area Recovery Network, also known as the BARN. They argued that funding recovery support is fiscally prudent, ultimately alleviating the challenges communities face from untreated substance use disorder. 

Though it didn’t receive public input, Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, also spoke of the need for $15 million to reimburse municipalities for lost revenue from the failed Property Tax Stabilization Program. The actual cost of that program came out to be twice what it was projected. 

Veterans and Legal Affairs

In the past four years, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said her office has seen a “significant” increase in the Freedom of Access Act requests, most of which are related to elections. And given the political climate, she expects there will be even more to come. 

That’s why Bellows told the Appropriations and the Veterans and Legal Affairs committees that her office needs about $35,000 to implement software that digitizes the records request process. Currently, public records requests take hundreds of hours of manual review, Bellows said, but a computer system could reduce that staff time and increase public accessibility. 

Conservatives, progressives alike object to $107M savings in Mills’ budget proposal

With that, Bellows said her office also needs $124,000 for a new position that would be a public relations specialist and Freedom of Access Act officer dedicated to elections. This person would ensure the prompt and thorough fulfillment of records requests and ensure that all information on election forms, brochures, social media and other public-facing election material is consistent and accurate.

Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine, testified in support of those measures, especially funding to improve the Freedom of Access Act process. 

Since the Sec. of State’s office oversees rulemaking for the whole state, Bellows also said her office needs funding for rulemaking software that will better facilitate the process and provide greater public access, as well as additional funding for a position to serve as a point of contact for visitors and to answer incoming calls to the elections division.

Brigadier General Diane Dunn, commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management, also spoke to the committees about the need for one-time funding of $460,000 to clean hazardous waste at the former Maine Military Authority site in Limestone.


Fifty people including advocates, developers, people who have experienced homelessness and others who work with the homeless community weighed in on how they think the state should be spending money in the supplemental budget to address the state’s housing crisis.

There are two main funding proposals related to housing currently on the table, as Erik Jorgensen from the Maine State Housing Authority and Greg Payne from the Office of Policy, Innovation and Future shared with the Appropriations and Housing committees Friday afternoon. They include $10 million for the Affordable Homeownership Program and $16 million for the emergency housing relief fund. 

That $16 million will be used in multiple ways, Payne explained, including support for low-barrier homeless shelters, winter warming shelters for next winter and extending a transitional housing initiative in Saco for an additional nine months. 

The public testified in support of those measures, but also asked for more support for renters.

Public testimony asked for an additional $20 million from the unallocated portion of the supplemental budget to fund two programs through Maine Housing that support renters, namely the Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.

One of the people advocating for that funding was Drew Wing, president of Zachau Construction in Freeport, who said his company has renovated or built over 1,000 units of affordable housing in the last five years.

“Despite historic investments in housing over the past four years — and thank you — the available funding remains woefully inadequate to meet the unmet need and demand for housing,” Wing said.

He added, “It is a crisis that ripples through our healthcare and our social service systems, impacts our economic development and perhaps most significantly sends a demoralizing message to too many Mainers old, young and new, and that is ‘Regardless of how hard you work or have worked you may not be able to live here.’”

Multiple people specifically mentioned LD 1540, which seeks to create a $300 a month rental assistance pilot program. That bill passed the Senate last session, but failed the House and has been on the special appropriations table since last June. 

“Rent relief for families with low income can be an effective, efficient way to stem the rising tides of evictions and homelessness,” said Josie Phillips, state priorities partnership fellow with the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Payne said this round of budgeting focused on home ownership because the current biennial budget included $70 million for MaineHousing’s rent programs.