Hearings target state budget cuts

Posted Jan. 05, 2009, at 8:36 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — As hearings got under way Monday, veteran lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee said they see the panel’s challenge to balance a state budget that reflects a $140 million revenue downturn as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the next spending package, which faces a much larger shortfall.

Getting down to work in advance of the rest of the Legislature’s scheduled return on Wednesday, the committee began its review of budget revisions for the present fiscal year, which ends June 30. Gov. John Baldacci’s supplemental package would eliminate 94 positions, including 40 layoffs and draw from state reserves.

In opening remarks, Democratic Rep. John Martin and Republican Rep. Sawin Millett both said they see the work ahead as an opportunity. Martin, who has four decades of legislative service, also offered some perspective on Maine’s budget problems, saying “there are 43 states like us in a deficit situation,” and in many cases they are more serious.

“These cycles come and they go,” said Martin, of Eagle Lake.

Millett, of Waterford, said revisions in the present budget could serve as a model for those to be made in the next two-year budget, which faces a shortfall of $838 million.

The two-year shortfall includes a projected revenue decline of $330 million, along with an additional $508 million in spending needed just to maintain state services at their present levels.

“We have an opportunity to correct the impression that a budget once adopted here is truly a balanced budget, and my way of doing that would be to make sure we look at the long-term implications, make sure that we’ve not just put together a budget that’s balanced on paper, but an opportunity to set real priorities and to look long-term,” said Millett, a former state finance commissioner.

Millett, of Waterford, also cautioned budget reviewers to view any federal stimulus money the state may receive as something that would provide short-term and not long-term relief.

Monday’s hearing examined cuts in the Transportation, Health and Human Services, Corrections, Defense and Veterans Affairs and Public Safety departments.

Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson said the cuts in his department are the worst he’s seen in several rounds and will leave the department “significantly less effective.”

Among the reductions are the proposed closing of one of two units at the Charleston Correctional Center and boarding inmates in county jails. The budget also envisions elimination of transitional housing for women who will be up for release, Magnusson said.

“This is not about system improvement,” the commissioner told the committee. “We’re really out of good ideas and are presenting the best of bad ideas.”

Some of the cuts also drew opposition from the public.

Carol Carothers, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Maine chapter, asked the committee to flat-fund the support and advocacy agency’s budget rather than approve a $10,000 cut.

“We are truly bare-bones,” said Carothers, adding that NAMI’s former staff of nine has been pared to five. “There’s nowhere else for us to cut.”

Other social service groups made similar comments.

The Appropriations Committee has set an ambitious timetable to complete work on the present budget by Jan. 23, which would be required to get full legislative passage by Feb. 1. Then, the work on the next budget, for fiscal 2010-11, would begin.

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