AUGUSTA, Maine — Medicaid expansion, pot sales and the aging state's workforce shortage are at the top of lawmakers' agenda as Democrats prepare to take over the Maine Statehouse.
Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills, who will be sworn in Wednesday, has vowed to start rolling out Medicaid expansion and recreational marijuana sales. Both voter-approved initiatives were delayed under outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage's administration.
Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson say they want to move on from the divisive politics of the LePage era and invest in Maine's economy at a time when lawmakers face over $300 million in surplus tax revenues over the next three years. Republicans, weathering losses after winning historic majorities in 2010 alongside LePage, say they hope to keep spending responsible and protect taxpayers.
"Republicans, we're not going to have a lot to say," said Sen. Jeff Timberlake, assistant Senate leader. "We're going to sit there and point things out, and do what we do, and hopefully help create good policy."
Timberlake said he wishes Mills the best but said the "centrist" governor will have her work cut out for her. "It's going to be her job not to let them go too far and spend the money too fast."
LePage vetoed Medicaid expansion proposals five times before voters approved expanding coverage to at least 70,000 more low-income residents in a 2017 referendum. The outgoing governor has blocked expansion since over his claims of "imminent fiscal calamity."
LePage scored a partial win when a state judge gave Maine until February to expand Medicaid under former President Obama's signature health care law. The LePage administration has said it's denied 3,500 Mainers who applied for coverage under the expansion.
It's up to Mills to hire and train over 100 staffers needed to process Medicaid applications, and she'll also work with lawmakers to cover Maine's share of expansion costs once state funding runs out in mid-2019. Mills' pick for health commissioner is Jeanne Lambrew, a former White House official who helped roll out Obama's health law.
Mills will also review LePage's recently approved proposal to require able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work, train for a new career or volunteer. Opponents have argued the plan would dampen Medicaid enrollment, while Mills said ensuring people are healthy is a first step in making them eligible for work.
Mainers in 2016 voted to allow recreational use and retail sales of marijuana.
Adults over 21 can now possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in Maine. But lawmakers delayed sales, which won't be legal in Maine until agencies pass regulations and get legislative approval.
Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokesman David Heidrich told state officials this fall that Maine will sign a contract in December with consultants hoping to advise Maine on recreational marijuana sales. Under that scenario, rulemaking would begin in January and end by April 30.
A message was left with Heidrich seeking comment. Mills supports allowing Maine to begin recreational pot sales and has pushed for Congress to allow banks to serve state-licensed pot businesses.
Mills has until February to release a two-year budget proposal. She's expected to offer ideas to address the opioid crisis, attract more young people to the aging state and tackle persistent economic challenges in rural areas.
Her proposed solutions include new grant and loans programs, seeking more federal funding, rolling back LePage-era reforms like asset tests for public assistance and limits on methadone treatment.
Another Mills' priority is renewable energy, from weatherizing 100 percent of Maine homes to encouraging offshore wind, solar farms and geothermal energy. Mills has also voiced support for universal paid family leave, single-payer health care and universal pre-kindergarten.
Democrats buoyed by out-of-state funding ran on similar policies in November and flipped the Senate, securing a total of 21 seats, while Republicans are down from 18 to 14 seats. Democrats also have a stronger majority in the House with 89 seats, while Republicans have 57 and five lawmakers are independent.
"There's an ebb and flow to administrations, at the national and state level," said former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. "People get tired of one administration, they look for change."