Lawmakers OK $166M supplemental budget

Posted Jan. 27, 2009, at 9:14 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved an emergency measure Tuesday to bring the state budget out of the red for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The $166 million supplemental budget was enacted by votes of 120-22 in the House and 31-3 in the Senate.

“I want to congratulate the Legislature and the committees for their work on this,” Gov. John Baldacci said in an interview. “This was a difficult budget and now we have to work on the biennial budget, which will also be difficult.”

Leaders of both parties supported the measure, which was crafted and approved unanimously by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee and had significant differences from the governor’s original proposal. Baldacci had proposed a package of one-time revenue sources and spending cuts to bring the budget into balance, but an accounting mistake at Maine Revenue Services added $11 million to the budget gap.

“We fixed that by taking additional money from the reserves,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House chairman of the panel. “We know that in many ways there is even harder work ahead of us as we take up the state budget for the next two years.”

The governor had proposed using $45 million in reserves but agreed to increase that to $56 million after the mistake in sales tax revenues was reported. There also were several one-time savings in various spending accounts as well as cuts in programs.

“It’s about half one-time sources of revenue and half in cuts,” said Rep. Sawin Millett of Waterford, the ranking GOP member of the panel. “We have put off some of the more difficult decisions to the biennial budget.”

Millett is concerned that so much of the budget consisted of one-time money sources and had hoped more could be cuts that would help in balancing the biennial budget.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the Senate chairman of the panel, said the unanimity of the committee should not be misinterpreted. He said it was not an easy process to achieve that level of support.

“We have set a tone that we will need to solve the larger budget issues still before us,” he said.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee, agreed.

“This has been a good dry run for everyone,” he said. “We are now ready to embark on the next challenge.”

But not everyone believes the panel went as far as it could in finding cuts.

Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, questioned why the budget cut $10,000 for training police officers on how to handle incidents with mentally ill individuals. He said that money could “easily” have been found in the Legislature’s budget.

“If we are to look under every stone to find money, we need to begin looking at ourselves,” he said.

Sykes said it costs the taxpayers $13,160 a day for lawmakers to meet, and reducing legislative sessions by just one day would have allowed that training program to continue. He serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, which was critical of the cut.

Education is the largest area of the state budget and took the largest cuts. Aid to schools was reduced by $27 million, and the state’s higher education institutions — the university system, community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy — were cut by $12 million.

Several lawmakers considered trying to amend the budget to change the way aid to local schools would be distributed, but they did not offer amendments as it became clear in party caucuses that there was little support for a change. The cuts will be distributed by the same formula used to allocate school aid.

The second-largest area of state spending is in human services, and various programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services were cut a total of $34 million.

One of the most contentious issues was payments to hospitals and doctors. Payments to doctors who work for hospitals was reduced by $1.7 million.

A provision was added that makes settlement payments to Maine hospitals for bills they are owed a priority when any of the Medicaid economic stimulus funds expected from Congress arrive.

The budget does delay some difficult issues. Instead of closing a unit at the Charleston Correctional Facility, it eliminates two advocate positions and the Department of Corrections leadership training program.

An additional $100,000 in savings will result from heating the minimum-security prison around the clock with a wood boiler that will be staffed during the third shift by corrections employees who have offered to volunteer their time.

Baldacci said he plans to sign the budget into law Thursday morning.

The Legislature now shifts its focus to Baldacci’s proposed $6.1 billion budget for the two years starting July 1. Public hearings on that package, which seeks to bridge an $838 million gap between revenues and spending, will begin Feb. 9.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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