Maine budget-cutting task force to begin making tough decisions

Posted Nov. 07, 2011, at 3:54 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state budget-cutting task force responsible for identifying at least $25 million in savings in the 2012-13 budget has targeted more than $18 million already with about a month left before final recommendations are due.

The 12-member panel, made up of lawmakers and state leaders, resumes its work Tuesday, but members agree that the decisions are only expected to get harder.

So far, the approved cuts range from a $20,606 reduction for school-based health centers, a 20 percent decrease, to a $3.1 million reduction in reimbursements to acute care hospitals for outpatient services.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said he has been pleased with the broad perspective of ideas coming out of the task force process but hasn’t seen too many surprises. He did agree that the group’s decisions are getting more difficult.

Among the more controversial proposals that have yet to be voted on:

• Creating a two-year limit for patients who receive suboxone to treat opioid dependency, saving an estimated $787,813.

• Eliminating the general fund contribution to the state’s Head Start program, saving nearly $2.5 million.

• Eliminating funding for the WrapAround ME program, which helps young people transition from a residential treatment or correctional facility. That would save approximately $4.2 million.

Some Democrats serving on the budget-cutting task force are concerned about cuts that would affect needy population groups.

“At this point, I am opposed to those ideas,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “I’d like to see some alternatives where we can continue to provide services but maybe offer them in a cheaper way.”

During the process, some proposals have been noncontroversial and were supported by all task force members. Other ideas have drawn outrage.

At a meeting in early October, some questioned whether the state’s education system should bear such a high burden. Roughly $7 million in funding for Maine’s higher education facilities had been targeted for cuts.

Not all proposals have been endorsed.

At an Oct. 28 meeting, the task force rejected a proposal from the Department of Corrections to close the Down East Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor, a move that would have saved about $4 million.

Rosen said in the past lawmakers who tried to balance the budget often made across-the-board cuts that were distributed evenly.

“That was an acceptable approach, but this task force’s work is different,” he said. “We were, by statute, asked to look for efficiencies and eliminate redundancies. That may not end up meaning equal cuts across all departments.”

The Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force was created out of the $6.1 billion two-year budget that passed in June. The recommendations are due in mid-December and will go to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for action.

If the Legislature fails to pass a bill, the governor could use curtailment to make the cuts. The Legislature could then undo the governor’s curtailment, but only a simple majority would be needed to affirm the governor’s action. With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, that seems likely.

In a letter sent recently to task force members, the Maine Center for Economic Policy urged a more balanced approach to streamlining the budget, including looking at revenues.

“Specifically, we urge the task force to assess the effectiveness, efficiency, and

priority of the many tax expenditures in Maine’s tax code,” the letter reads. “Maine has more than 100 personal and corporate income tax and property tax reimbursement programs, as well as more than 100 sales and excise tax exceptions.

“Tax expenditures deserve the same level of scrutiny and review that all government programs receive to determine their cost effectiveness,” the letter said.

As examples, the center pointed to three areas: reimbursement for taxes paid on certain business property, the exemption on fuel and electricity used at manufacturing facilities, and the exemption on machinery and equipment. Together, those three tax programs add up to nearly $100 million for fiscal year 2013.

Another point of contention could be the $25 million target.

Rosen said he would like to see the task force go over that mark and perhaps get to $35 million.

Martin said he’s not opposed to additional cuts, but said it’s not the responsibility of the task force to find those cuts.

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