Budget revision looks to reduce cuts to schools, social services

Posted March 28, 2010, at 7:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state budget revision that reduces cuts for schools and the state’s social services agency will be taken up this week by the House and Senate with little of the political rancor that seems to dominate debate on the national stage.

Gov. John Baldacci contrasted the Appropriations Committee’s unanimous approval and bipartisan support with what’s happening in Congress and some other state capitols.

“Democrats and Republicans are unable to work together. In Maine, though, it’s different,” the Democratic governor said in his weekend radio address. “Despite the most difficult economy since the Great Depression, Democrats and Republicans have been able to put aside partisanship and work together to put Maine on the right track.”

In January, Baldacci advanced a budget package reflecting a $438 million gap between revenues and needs. But since then, improved revenues and greater-than-anticipated federal funding have brightened the revenue picture, shrinking the gap to $310 million.

As a result, reductions to programs, especially in two of Maine’s largest agencies, will be less severe than expected if the budget passes.

A $68 million cut that had been proposed for the Department of Health and Human Services is reduced to $22 million in the new budget, and the $73 million cuts to public schools would be trimmed to $47 million. The budget covers the period through June 30, 2011.

Senate Republican Leader Kevin Raye praised the spending package.

“Working in a bipartisan manner with our colleagues across the aisle, we softened the impact of the cuts by almost entirely restoring the cuts to nursing homes, and adding an additional $1 million to home-based care, services that give our elderly and disabled a better quality of life, and also save the taxpayers untold dollars,” said Raye, of Perry.

The spending package is expected to hit the House floor by Tuesday morning, said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. Lawmakers have until noon Monday to propose amendments.

The Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee said the bipartisan support for the budget set a positive tone for the debate.

“It’s a good way to start,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, adding he knew of no attempt by senators from either party to amend the bill.

The supplemental budget restores funding to the state’s Rainy Day reserve fund by $7 million. Longevity pay for state employees would be restored, but Baldacci’s proposal to merge four natural resource-based departments is dropped in favor of smaller steps to consolidate services.

The $6.4 million restored for nursing homes will soften the impact on 24-hour service providers and the number of homes affected. It restores $500,000 of the previously proposed $580,000 cut to adult education.

The budget eliminates the director of the state crime laboratory’s position and passes the role to a state police lieutenant, and adds a detective’s position to the crime lab.

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