Budget Groundwork Laid

Posted Feb. 07, 2011, at 10:38 p.m.

With a change in legislative leadership, the new governor’s budget guru on medical leave and a lot of new faces in the Legislature, the process of completing a budget for the remainder of the year could have been fraught with disaster. Instead, a responsible supplemental budget was crafted with a minimum of disagreement.

Historically, supplemental budgets — the documents state lawmakers must pass in order to update the two-year budget to reflect changes in state revenues — aren’t too controversial. But this year was especially notable for its unanimity.

This should set the groundwork for constructive work on Gov. Paul LePage’s first proposed biennial budget, which is expected to be made public later this week. Expect a lot more disagreement over this document, which sets spending levels for the next two years. It also will include many more policy changes than the supplemental budget.

Credit for the so-far smooth budget work goes to the Appropriations Committee and its two leaders, Sen. Richard Rosen and Rep. Pat Flood, along with Ryan Low, the budget director for former Gov. John Baldacci. Mr. Low agreed to step in and shepherd the LePage supplemental budget through the Legislature when Sawin Millett, the new commissioner of finance, had to take a leave of absence due to health problems.

Highlights of the governor’s proposed budget include a $248 million payment to the state’s hospitals to help pay down debts owed by the state for services provided to MaineCare patients. A total of $400 million is owed.

His proposed budget contains funding to account for increased enrollments in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. It also identifies 250 state positions that have been vacant for at least a year so that cuts can be considered in the next budget.

And it calls for federal-state tax conformity in several areas. The changes are needed because Maine income tax forms were printed before Congress extended some tax cuts in December. Without the changes, Maine tax forms would have to be reprinted.

There were a handful of areas where the Appropriations Committee disagreed with the governor. It restored $98,000 for the state’s indigent defense fund that the governor proposed to cut. The committee also devoted $200,000 to the fund, which was slated to run out of money in May.

The committee agreed to devote more money to municipal revenue sharing, dairy farming support and the state’s school lunch program than the governor proposed. It delayed cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine.

The Appropriations Committee paid for these changes with excess money set aside for state debt payments and by allocating less money to the state’s reserves, or Rainy Day Fund.

The committee also wisely pulled policy language regarding Child Development Services and disability determinations from the budget so they could be more fully debated by the Legislature.

Not only did the Appropriations Committee vote unanimously to approve the changed supplemental budget, but every item also received a unanimous vote. The budget, which runs through June 30, still needs to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor to go into effect.

The constructive way disagreements were handled should set the tone for the much more difficult debate over the forthcoming two-year budget.

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