Gov. Paul LePage has given his word that he’s not done with his attempts todismantle Maine’s anti-poverty programs. But he may have built an escape valve to side-step the Legislature this time.
Working together, Democrats and Republicans on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee blunted many of the governor’s most dangerous proposals, including one that would have kicked roughly 30,000 people off their health insurance and a second that would have made it more difficult for about 44,000 seniors and disabled Mainers to afford their prescription medicines.
Undeterred — and in fact, it seems, unable to enjoy the fact that the state budget passed with overwhelming bipartisan support — Gov. LePage has made it clear that he plans to attack the programs that protect struggling Mainers again come January.
But this time, buried in the depths of the budget, he might have a tool that would allow him to avoid the pesky necessity of working with the Legislature.
InPart KKK of the budget, Gov. LePage has created a Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force.
While the task force hasn’t met yet, and isn’t required to meet until Sept. 1, the budget books $25 million of savings in fiscal year 2013 from the work of the task force.
Reviewing the stellar work of the Appropriations Committee, it seems unlikely that the group could have found a consensus if they had been forced to either cut spending by an additional $25 million. As the budget gets close to being done, the last dollars are always the toughest to find.
A task force like this isn’t new. When I was in the Baldacci administration, we used a similar gimmick to help balance the budget. But unlike this one, we empowered the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee to find the savings.
This time, the task force is being run by the executive branch and will be headed up by the governor’s commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.
Of 12 members, eight are appointed by the governor. Four members come from the Appropriations Committee.
The task force will look at all of state government, including independent agencies, constitutional offices — which are formally part of the legislative branch — and the Department of Audit. Its mandate gives the task force the ability to recommend layoffs, consolidations, eliminations and to prioritize government programs. Next year, its recommendations can be presented as legislation.
Now here’s the rub. And I give the governor and his people credit.
If the Legislature fails to enact legislation that achieves $25 million in savings, the governor can use his power of curtailment to make the cuts.
The normal power tocurtail is limited. Typically, the governor can only use it when revenues appear unlikely to meet expenditures. With Part KKK, he could curtail even if revenues are growing and the state is exceeding projections — essentially taking in more money than expected.
Curtailment is a temporary fix and can be undone by the Legislature. But unlike most state budgets, which are passed with two-thirds support, the Legislature could make the curtailment permanent with a simple majority, shutting out Democrats and moderate Republicans.
With curtailment, the governor can’t change laws governing MaineCare eligibility, for example, but he can choke off the flow of money.
How likely is Maine’s economy to exceed revenue projections?
The Bangor Daily News reported that the state finished last fiscal year about$50 million above projections.
Imagine what $25 million of cuts might look like if Gov. LePage isn’t tempered by the more moderate Legislature.
The governor proposeddevastating changes to General Assistance, TANF, MaineCare and public health programs. Basing much of his rationale on anecdote and ideology, he had no qualms about kicking people off of health insurance, reducing state aid to municipalities and creating new and unnecessary burdens to cut eligibility.
For poor families, the elderly and the disabled, we’ve already seen where the governor wants to go. He says he’s going there again. And this time, he has even more leverage.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.