Legislature set to move quickly on budget

Posted Jan. 04, 2009, at 7:58 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to get the state through the rest of the budget year reduces overall net spending by $115.4 million and uses $45 million in reserves to keep state government operating. But the public will only have three days, and nights, to comment on the 175-page proposal starting today, and that con-cerns some lawmakers.

“We really have no choice,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “It means we will be here early in the morning and late at night, but we have to get it done. This is an aggressive hearing schedule, but we have to get this out of the way to deal with the big-ger problem of the biennial budget.”

Baldacci will propose his budget for the next two years on Friday, and it will close a gap of more than $850 million, composed of both revenue shortfalls and agency estimates of what it will take to keep current programs and current levels of service.

“We know the governor will be making some major proposals that are going to take a lot of effort to review and consider,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House co-chair of the committee. “Aggressive is the perfect word to describe the approach we are taking with the supplemental budget because we have to get it out of the way just as soon as we can.”

But the two GOP lead members of the panel are worried about the ability of the public to weigh in on the spending of their tax money with limits on how long a person may testify and uncertainty when a particular section of the budget will actually be brought up for public comment.

“For the members of the committee to fulfill its responsibility, to the full Legislature and to the public, it needs to take the necessary time to ask the questions and find the answers,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. He has previously served on the panel, although not as a senator. He said the panel benefits from public comment and he does not want to see that diminished.

“This severely limits the public input and it’s an extremely aggressive schedule,” he said. “It is important that we demonstrate to the public that there is openness and transparency in the budget process.”

The lead GOP House committee member, Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, said that while he agrees the panel needs to move swiftly on the budget proposal, the public needs to have its say.

“That is a real concern,” he said, “particularly with the first day’s schedule.”

Millett said holding hearings on both Health and Human Services and Corrections in one day will be very difficult. In all, three dozen areas of changes and cuts in DHHS are scheduled for public hearings between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. today. At 4 p.m., hearings on cuts and changes in 20 separate areas of Corrections start. And an-other eight proposals in two state departments are scheduled after completion of the Corrections budget.

Lawmakers already have identified several areas that likely will be contentious, such as reductions in some of the human services programs. In addition, the closing of a unit at the Charleston Correctional Center is controversial, as is the way the cut in state aid to local schools will be distributed.

“And there are some of us that would like to find some other cuts we can make to reduce what we take from reserves,” Rosen said. “We may need that later on.”

Cain said many of the cuts are continuations of the curtailments imposed by the governor in November, so they are not “new” and hopefully will not generate a lot of public comment.

“We are going to make every effort to hear every story as we always do,” she said. “We are going to encourage organizations and groups to present with spokespeople and show up at the public hearings, but not have every individual speak.”

Diamond said commissioners have been told they are not to present lengthy arguments for the budget changes at the hearings, leaving the time that is available to the public. He said the committee will work late into the evening every night if that is what it takes to allow the public to have their say.

“We have to get this done,” he said. “This is an unusual session, an unusual budget problem, and we have to tackle it as such.”

Diamond said his target is to have the bill out of the committee by Jan. 23 so the full Legislature can consider it. He said the two-year state budget gap is likely to grow and lawmakers will need all the time they can get to tackle that problem.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see that gap grow to a billion dollars,” he said.

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