Committee approves emergency state spending bill

Posted April 07, 2011, at 9:16 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Thursday evening unanimously approved the second emergency spending measure of this session to pay the state’s bills for the budget year that ends June 30. It will go to the full Legislature next week.

“We made a few changes from what the governor proposed,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, committee co-chairman.

Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett agreed. He said the panel made some “minor changes” to the original proposal to address the additional needs for funds in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think it accomplishes our overall goal of filling the MaineCare shortfall and moving money to address the shortfall as the result of the targeted case management lawsuit,” he said. “It also addresses a few other small items that needed to be addressed.”

The measure reallocates existing state funds from various accounts to pay nearly $70 million in bills, mostly in DHHS.

The largest allocation was to pay for $29.7 million in disallowed payments under the targeted case management program under MaineCare. A federal judge ruled against the state on that issue.

The second-largest allocation is for increased costs in the MaineCare system. Lawmakers shifted an estimated $35 million to various programs, including $5 million to make an expected payment to the claims management system provider that was not in the original budget proposal.

During panel work sessions, several lawmakers expressed concerns about whether all of the budget problems at DHHS for this budget year have been identified. Millett said he hopes so.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that she [DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew] has identified the areas where spending was occurring at a more rapid rate than was budgeted,” Millett said. “Can’t promise this is the last supplemental budget, but I can promise if there is another problem, we will move aggressively to address it.”

Rosen agreed that DHHS has been a problem for the panel since the Legislature convened. It was also a significant part of the first supplemental budget passed in early February.

“We certainly hope we have put this fiscal year to bed,” he said, “but we can’t foresee what might happen.”

While most of the budget was funded through shifting funds from programs throughout state government, it also uses $29.7 million from state reserves, often called the rainy day fund. Once the money is taken from the fund, it will have only between $6 million and $7 million in reserve for any additional emergency needs.

“That was a bipartisan concern,“ Rosen said.

The panel adopted language that will take the first $25 million from any state surplus in July to partially restore the reserves.

The panel rejected taking $777,738 from the fund that covers accident, sickness and health insurance for some firefighters and law enforcement personnel. Members voted instead to take another $900,000 from salary savings from unfilled positions across state government.

They also rejected taking $4.3 million from a fund that pays health insurance claims of state workers, instead borrowing $2.4 million from the fund to provide the cash needed to pay this year’s bills.

“What was important to us was what we kept out of this budget,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, the only Democrat senator on the panel.

The panel also approved shifting nearly $1.3 million from the Learning Through Technology Initiative, the program that funds the laptop computers in the schools program, to partially fill a hole in the Child Development Services program. CDS provides early education services to preschool-age children and their families.

That leaves an estimated shortfall of $3 million in the program for this year. The panel adopted language agreed to by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to find the money within the rest of his department budget.

“That was the governor’s instructions to me,“ Bowen told lawmakers. “Find it within the department. “

But Bowen acknowledged he could not do that in time to include the specific cuts in this budget. He must report to the committee by June 14 on what those cuts are and their impact.

“I need all the time I can get,” Bowen said.

The budget also provides an additional $550,000 to pay indigent legal services. The program now is administered by the Indigent Legal Services Commission, and the agency inherited some bills from the judicial branch when it took over paying attorneys to represent poor Mainers who cannot afford a lawyer when they have been charged with a crime.

The panel expects the full Legislature will get the proposal next Tuesday.

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