Lawmakers approve emergency spending bill

Posted April 14, 2011, at 5:58 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – Lawmakers gave overwhelming approval to the second emergency budget to pay bills due in the current budget year that ends June 30. Gov. Paul LePage said the changes made by lawmakers are acceptable and he expects to sign the bill.

“There is nothing major there,” he said. “This just pays the bills.”

Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, House co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the measure reallocates existing state funds from various accounts to pay nearly $65 million in bills, mostly in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This consists primarily of funding needs within the Department of Health and Human Services, Child Development Services and in our courts system for indigent persons,” he said.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Democrat leader on the panel, agreed and said the budget was a true compromise and is the second supplemental budget this session that has been unanimously agreed to by the panel.

“I too feel that this lays the foundation for the work that lies ahead of us in terms of the unanimous bipartisan budget we hope to bring to you in the coming months,” she said.

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

The second largest area is for increased costs in the MaineCare system. Lawmakers shifted funds to make up an estimated $35 million due for various DHHS programs, with most of that from other DHHS accounts.

The measure also includes a contingency plan to make a $5 million payment to the claims management system provider that was not in the original supplemental budget proposal.

No one is claiming this will be the last supplemental budget needed to pay this year’s bills. Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett said he hopes another is not needed, but he “can’t promise” there will not be another problem uncovered that will need to be addressed.

LePage agreed. He joked that to make sure the budget stays in balance, he may send DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew on vacation. He said if further budget problems are uncovered, he will submit another measure to make sure the bills are paid.

“Like I tell her, it is what it is and don’t hide anything,” he said. “Mary Mayhew is digging as deep as she can to find the balances and we are finding more and more stuff with discrepancies.”

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, Senate co-chairman of the panel, said that DHHS has been a problem for the committee since it first met this session. DHHS was also a significant part of the first supplemental budget passed in early February.

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 issue raised bipartisan concern on the committee, and the measure has 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. Instead, members voted 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.

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

That leaves an estimated shortfall of $3 million in the program for this year. The measure has language agreed to by Education Commissioner Steve Bowen that directs him to find the money within his department budget by June 14.

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

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