DHHS: No more cuts possible

Posted Sept. 02, 2009, at 9:59 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s health commissioner told state lawmakers Wednesday that her agency has been reduced to offering only “core services” and that the Legislature will have to decide which programs should fall to the budget ax.

Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, said staff in her agency feel they have cut as deeply as they possibly can in recent years. Harvey said she can cite data showing every program needs additional funding, not less, and that the department has “reached the end point.”

“Our assessment is we are at the core of our operations, and unless decisions are made about what services we are no longer going to offer, our staff is in a bind about what should be reduced,” Harvey told members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Legislative budget writers officially have been charged with finding $30 million in savings for fiscal year 2011, which begins next July. But that gap has widened considerably due to lower-than-expected tax revenues.

As the state’s two largest agencies, DHHS and the Department of Education could be forced to absorb large cuts.

On Wednesday, Harvey presented the committee with a prioritized list of DHHS’s spending that lawmakers hoped would identify areas of potential savings. But the list contained few areas that staff believed could absorb further cuts.

That prompted Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, and other lawmakers to press for more suggestions on possible structural changes that would reduce spending over the long term. Millett said the committee could spend the entire day going over Harvey’s spreadsheet and walk away with savings of “nickels and nothing more.”

“The clock is running on us,” he said.

Harvey responded that the committee should not expect to see any recommendations of structural changes.

“We have been structurally changing for six to seven years. We have merged, we have consolidated,” Harvey said. “By cutting personnel and trying to do more with less, we have reached the end point and are on the edge.”

General Fund appropriations to DHHS have declined from roughly $1 billion in fiscal year 2006 to $823 million in the current year.

In the past, DHHS staff had emergency money to help people who came to the department with dire needs. Those accounts are now dry, and many of the agency’s assistance programs for the elderly, the mentally disabled and others in need have lengthy waiting lists.

Committee members acknowledged that the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci will have to make tough decisions about eliminating programs.

Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, said all of DHHS’ programs were created for a reason and that he wants to make sure the public understands how those cuts will affect real people.

“The public needs to grapple with the consequences of our decisions,” Webster said. “It is easy to do when it’s just a number.”

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron also addressed the budget writers Wednesday. She said Maine’s superintendents understand the dire financial situation gripping the state and are already exploring possible options.

One idea discussed during a recent gathering of superintendents is keeping staff and children home for a few days each year. Maine state government has scheduled 10 unpaid furlough days each year during the next two years for state workers, but not school employees.

Every day that schools are kept closed and staff does not receive a paycheck would save Maine and local governments roughly $7 million, Gendron said. Georgia education officials, for example, are considering four school shutdown days.

Other possible cost-saving strategies discussed by superintendents included wage freezes, statewide bidding for energy and statewide contracts and health benefits. There also appeared to be support for eliminating special education programs offered by Maine schools that go beyond federal requirements.

The most important thing to superintendents, Gendron said, is to be kept informed.

“What we heard most is that they really want to be told as early as possible” about budget cuts, she said.

The Appropriations Committee will continue its work to identify additional budget cuts during meetings on Sept. 23 and 24 in Augusta.

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