Budget writers to weigh shortfall

Posted May 08, 2009, at 8:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the budget-writing committee will be putting in long hours this weekend and next week trying to craft a recession-wracked spending plan likely to win legislative approval.

On Friday, the Appropriations Committee got a new set of suggestions.

The Legislature’s Democratic leadership presented their own proposal to deal with the latest budget shortfall in a way they said would be less hurtful to new state employees.

Gov. John Baldacci had proposed closing an additional $570 million budget hole by furloughing state employees for one day a month over the next two years and temporarily eliminating merit pay increases. Baldacci also would help cover the gap by requiring new state hires to pay a portion of their health insurance.

Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, outlined an alternative plan on Friday for all state and legislative employees (the governor’s proposal only dealt with state employees). The leadership’s proposal includes:

— Requiring all employees to pay 5 percent and then 10 percent of their health insurance during the next two fiscal years, respectively. At the same time, the state would launch a “wellness program” aimed at reducing insurance costs.

— Supplanting the 24 furlough days with seven unpaid holidays next year and eight the year after that.

— Eliminating merit raises next fiscal year but reinstating them the year after that.

Mitchell said she couldn’t give dollar figures yet but said initial estimates are that the alternate plan would achieve savings similar to the governor’s proposal. Mitchell said she has discussed the plan with state employee unions and had been told by several that it is the “least objectionable choice,” although none have endorsed it yet.

“This is a way for everybody to contribute,” Mitchell told the Appropriations Committee. “It’s a very unpleasant thing but it takes some of the burden off of some of our state employees.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said there was a lot of heartburn at the thought of requiring only new state employees to pay 15 percent of their insurance costs. The alternative plan aims to make the cuts more equitable, she said.

“It’s a good compromise in a difficult time,” she said.

The Appropriations Committee will continue to work on the two-year spending plan on Saturday and next week.

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A bill spawned by growing frustration toward the owner of the Millinocket area’s paper mills will likely be held over until next year.

Two months ago, a group of residents from the Millinocket area testified in support of a bill that would have required Brookfield Asset Management, which owns Katahdin Paper and six dams on the Penobscot River, to power its local paper mills before selling electricity to the grid.

Bill backers accused Brookfield of being more interested in making money by selling electricity than operating the paper mills that are central to the region’s economy.

The bill, LD 543, would have required Brookfield to give first priority to powering the mills before selling electricity on the New England grid. Rep. Herbie Clark, D-Millinocket, sponsored the measure.

On Wednesday, the Utilities and Energy Committee voted to carry the bill over to next legislative session.

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What does a leading Maine lawmaker give her mother, who also happens to be a prominent state politician, as a gift for Mother’s Day?

How about a ready-made piece of legislation?

On Friday, environmental and health activists called on Congress and federal officials to follow Maine’s lead by passing legislation aimed at making sure the chemicals used in children’s toys are nontoxic. Among the speakers were mother-daughter legislative team U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree.

The younger Pingree was the sponsor of a bill passed last year that requires toy manufacturers to disclose whether any of a list of potentially toxic chemicals are used in their toys and, if so, to phase out use of the chemicals with safer alternatives.

But speakers said only the federal government can provide real muscle on the issue.

“This is an issue where lawmakers and policymakers and others need to step up,” said Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. Moments later, Pingree wished her mom a happy Mother’s Day and handed her a wrapped copy of Maine’s bill to serve as a possible model, adding with a smile, “This is all you are getting.”

Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who was elected to Congress last November, said the federal government needs to act “to make sure no child is at risk every time they pick up their favorite toy or take it into the bathtub.”

There is mounting evidence that some chemicals used in plastics and vinyl may be harmful to developing children.

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