Tensions over Maine budget talks subside

Posted March 16, 2009, at 9:30 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislative budget writers settled down to business Monday after key Republicans tried to settle a partisan spat over how details of a new $65 million Medicaid shortfall were released by Gov. John Baldacci’s administration.

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, and Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, ranking Republicans on the Appropriations Committee, absolved the Democratic governor’s budget chief Ryan Low of withholding information about the shortfall. They noted that any delay in disclosing it to lawmakers was at least partially due to legislative scheduling.

Not all Republicans, however, seemed satisfied. Committee member John Robinson of Raymond, said he was “more than a little disturbed” by some of the latest numbers. And Republican Sen. Peter Mills of Cornville insisted that Baldacci should have mentioned them in his State of the State address to the Legislature last week.

Low briefly acknowledged the Republicans’ comments, but moved on to discuss the shortfall as he met with the panel Monday.

Asked whether a prevailing spirit of bipartisanship had gone off track, committee House Chairwoman Emily Cain, a Democratic representative from Orono, replied, “Not in this committee room. I think that’s the point.”

Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans worked cooperatively on a supplemental spending plan to offset a $140 million General Fund revenue shortfall.

But tensions surfaced late last week when Republican Senate leader Kevin Raye of Perry and Republican House leader Josh Tardy of Newport issued a statement saying lawmakers “were not told … that a cost overrun of this magnitude was anticipated.”

Low, in a response over the weekend, countered that the administration has informed lawmakers over the past several weeks that it has seen a surge in Medicaid recipients.

He also disputed the Republicans’ characterization of the new shortfall as a $235 million problem. He said that figure includes both the state and federal share of the jointly funded health care program.

The Baldacci administration plans to cover the $65 million shortfall by using the bulk of $113 million in federal stimulus funds for the MaineCare program for fiscal 2009, Low said. That would leave most of the rest — $45 million — for back payments to hospitals, he said.

Human services chief Brenda Harvey told the panel Monday that state Health and Human Services Department officials believe the latest shortfall estimate should hold up through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

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