Budgeteers keep eyes on Washington

Posted Feb. 03, 2009, at 9:39 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers gearing up for deliberations on a new two-year $6.1 billion budget are pinning their hopes on Washington to help address a looming $800 million-plus shortfall.

Reflective of State House anxiety and uncertainty has been Gov. John Baldacci’s decision to put off a State of the State address until later this month.

Baldacci administration budget chief Ryan Low was assigned to brief the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday about the prospects for state aid in the developing federal stimulus package, but could offer little definitively.

“I think we’ll know more over the next few days,” said Low, who is the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Finding common ground with several panelists, Low said the governor wants to create a structure through which lawmakers and the public can track whatever money is made available to the state and “see the flow of funds and what they’re being spent on.”

Low also said the administration shares a concern of at least some legislators about committing a one-time infusion of funds to program expansions.

Debate began on Capitol Hill on Monday night on an $885 billion Senate economic plan. A House bill worth about $819 billion received no Republican votes when it passed last week.

On Tuesday, the White House released estimates that its stimulus plan would create 800,000 new jobs — including 16,000 in Maine — in 10 eastern states.

Low said state officials have seen estimates ranging from $600 million to $1.2 billion for Maine government entities alone and that the governor hoped to be able to speak to the impact of a federal stimulus package on Maine in his State of the State address.

Low also said details of a federal package could affect decisions on new state bonding.

Last Thursday, Baldacci signed into law a supplemental state budget designed to bridge a $140 million General Fund revenue shortfall through the end of the current fiscal year June 30. It had won swift and overwhelming support in the House and Senate.

Baldacci, who made his 2008 State of the State address on Jan. 9, scheduled a meeting with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders Tuesday afternoon.

In early January, Baldacci unveiled a historically austere two-year budget to address an $838 million shortfall that would eliminate 219 state positions, requiring 139 layoffs, trim some state tax rebate programs, transfer 118 inmates to privately run prisons and raise natural resources agency fees.

Appropriations Committee hearings on that proposal open next week and are scheduled to run for almost a month.

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