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Rooks: Some progress in Maine, but $850 checks are a lost opportunity – Seacoastonline.com

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As the Maine Legislature left town this week after what began as the third annual pandemic session, there was a note of mild optimism. COVID-19 didn’t continue to dominate, and lawmakers made enough progress on recalcitrant issues to merit a modest celebration.
There were incremental advances in housing policy, criminal justice reform, energy, and the fraught relationship between the state and tribes. As almost goes without saying, more needs to be done, but if the policy deadlock marking the previous two years is finally broken, prospects for 2023 are brighter.
Especially notable was a change in tone from Gov. Janet Mills, who vetoed numerous bills passed by fellow majority Democrats during her first three years ­– 31 in all, with 21 issued in 2021 alone. So far this year, she’s vetoed only three bills, one a carryover from 2021.
The new approach was evident in a closely argued letter to legislative and tribal leaders, pointing to administration actions to benefit tribal members, and chronicling her approach during the present session.
It didn’t start that way; administration testimony on LD 906, a measure to finally allow the Passamaquoddy tribe to get clean water on their Pleasant Point reservation, emphasized the negative – that since other towns share the utility district, the bill was unacceptable.
In the past, the administration’s objections – like those of every administration since the Land Claims Act was signed in 1980 – led to failure, but not this time.  After overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, Mills bargained. The Legislature recalled the bill, made requested changes, and a new water system should be going in later this year.
Mills also offered the tribes exclusive access to online sports gaming, a potentially substantial revenue source, and tweaked a few friction points of the Land Claims Act. In return, the Legislature backed off on the “big bill,” LD 1626, which would have repealed key sections to allow tribes to benefit from all federal legislation enacted since 1980. It’s slow, but undeniable progress.
One can’t say the same about the decision made before the supplemental budget was even presented – Mills’s vow to devote half the $1.2 billion budget surplus to checks, now increased to $850, for the vast majority of adult Mainers.
No one should be celebrating; this is a huge missed opportunity, and a failure of imagination about state government itself.
To understand why, we must take an excursion into macroeconomics and the federal budget. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, everyone understood the government needed to spend plenty while much of the country was out of work.
The CARES Act was the bipartisan result, followed by the American Rescue Plan, passed solely by Democrats, then a bipartisan, 10-year infrastructure bill. They were all financed by deficit spending, totaling nearly $6 trillion.
This is what’s so frustrating about pretensions to “fiscal responsibility” of senators like Joe Manchin, who voted for everything else, but balked at the fully-paid-for Build Back Better plan that had truly innovative policies.
President Biden wanted to avoid the overly cautious response to the Great Recession of 2008, where President Obama settled for a stimulus package widely considered too small; unemployment and depressed wages continued for years. This time, full recovery was rapid.
It’s fair to say Biden may have overshot. So much money in people’s pockets, with the pandemic limiting supply, helped push up inflation – something we hear about daily.
The success of the overall policy is rarely mentioned: Full recovery and full employment in Maine and the nation, with booming wages. Maine’s hospitality industry, for instance, saw 13% wage growth in 2021, far outpacing inflation.
Why have we heard so little about this? Possibly because inflation hurts the financial sector far more than ordinary wage-earners.
But what does this have to do with Maine’s checks? Just this: The last thing we need right now is more fiscal stimulus. No one imagines Maine has much effect on the national economy, but it doesn’t help.
Mills was opposed to expanding state programs permanently. Faced with the last major surplus in 1999-2000, though, Gov. Angus King put most of it toward replacing outdated state infrastructure.
Recalling an unpleasant exercise from the 1980s when income taxes were over-collected and had to be refunded, King was dead-set against checks, but pandemic relief apparently made them irresistible this time.
One can only imagine what else we might have spent the money on.
The “vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush termed it, was nowhere in evidence. But 2023 will be a new moment, and maybe the tentative signs of spring will last.
Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback.  He welcomes comment at drooks@tds.net

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