Lawmakers start to deal with budget

Posted Feb. 06, 2009, at 8:42 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Monday will begin the sobering business of deciding how to spread the economic pain around state government as they delve into a proposed budget that cuts funding to most agencies and eliminates hundreds of jobs.

Lawmakers have scheduled four weeks of public hearings on the Baldacci administration’s proposal for dealing with an estimated $838 million hole in the 2-year budget that begins this July.

Click to see a .pdf document of the public hearing schedule.

Those hearings, which are before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, begin Monday in the State House and are expected to run through at least March 6. Hearings are organized by department or program.

In addition to soliciting feedback from Mainers, the Legislature’s budget wranglers will be keeping a close eye on developments in Washington, D.C., as congressional leaders hash out an economic stimulus package expected to funnel hundreds of billions of dollars to states.

“There are so many moving parts with this budget … so it is important for us to take a more thoughtful and more deliberative approach,” said Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat who co-chairs the appropriations committee.

Gov. John Baldacci has said that his $6.1 billion biennial budget was crafted with the goal of protecting “core government functions,” such as emergency responders and services to the young, elderly or disabled.

But cutting $800 million will reverberate throughout state and, by extension, local government.

The University of Maine System faces a 2.4 percent funding reduction, which comes on the heels of $8.3 million cut from the current year’s budget imposed last fall.

Baldacci flat-funded state aid to Maine’s K-12 schools for 2010-11 after cutting $27 million during a budget curtailment in the current fiscal year. That will further erode progress toward meeting the voter-approved mandate that the state pay 55 percent of all K-12 education costs.

The closest Maine ever came was in the 2007-08 budget, when the state paid just over 54 percent of education costs. The state’s contribution will fall to 52.5 percent and 51 percent in the next two fiscal years under the current proposal, according to Maine Education Association figures.

The MEA’s Steve Crouse said the flat-funding recommendation, combined with the $27 million hit in the supplemental budget, increases the possibility that schools will be forced to freeze salaries, cut programs and furlough or even lay off staff.

“It does cause us a great deal of concern,” said Crouse, the MEA’s lobbyist.

Public hearings on the higher education and K-12 budget proposals are scheduled for Feb. 24 and 25, respectively.

A crowd is also expected this Wednesday when the committee takes up proposals to slash funding — and dozens of positions — in Maine’s correctional facilities.

The governor’s budget contains plans to close housing units within several correctional facilities — including at Charleston and Machiasport — and to move more than 100 prisoners to out-of-state facilities.

Nearly 40 corrections positions would be eliminated under the plan. The Maine Department of Transportation, meanwhile, would lose 137 positions, only 52 of which are now filled. Most of those are Augusta-based, management positions.

Across state government, 219 positions would be eliminated under the Baldacci administration’s budget proposal. More than 130 of those would be layoffs, bringing the total number of state employees to its lowest level in more than 25 years.

“We don’t think with the economy in as bad a shape as it is right now that putting more Mainers out of work is a good idea,” said Tim Belcher, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, a union. “But we understand the political reality that there are calls to cut jobs.”

Belcher credited the Baldacci administration with working with the union in the past to reduce the size of the state payroll through attrition, whenever possible. He said his organization hopes lawmakers will look at individual positions recommended for elimination to ensure those cuts make sense.

The union is also urging its members to fight a proposal to require all state employees earning more than $50,000 to pay 5 percent of their health insurance premiums.

Baldacci administration officials are banking on receiving at least $98 million in additional federal support for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, from President Obama’s economic stimulus plan. Failure to receive at least that much money would necessitate additional budget cuts.

Baldacci’s budget seeks temporary reductions in several tax rebate programs, including the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement Program and the Tree Growth Program. It also calls for fee hikes on fishermen, hunters and users of state parks.

But the governor’s budget avoids position cuts among state troopers, game wardens and marine patrol officers and maintains funding for a red tide monitoring program that is critical to Maine’s shellfish industry.

Also missing from the governor’s proposal are any broad-based tax increases. And legislative leaders say they have no intention of introducing any.

“While legislators will certainly make changes to the governor’s budget, I don’t see us considering new tax proposals to balance the budget,” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. She called the Baldacci proposal a “solid framework” for lawmakers.

Pingree said passage of the supplemental budget earlier this year set a good tone for the upcoming budget battle. She said she hopes to win two-thirds approval of upcoming budget sometime in April.

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