State budget task force agrees on $25 million in cuts

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 28, 2011, at 7:21 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state task force created to identify $25 million in budget cuts to address a shortfall in the 2012-13 biennial budget has met its goal.

Members of the Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force wrapped up their work Monday by agreeing to a series of cuts across a variety of departments.

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. Most cuts eliminated redundancies in departments.

The $25 million identified still needs approval of the Legislature and will be subject to public hearings likely beginning in January.

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.

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, one of four lawmakers to serve on the task force, said the process went as well as could be expected.

“We did do some streamlining, maybe not as much as I thought we could have gotten done, but it’s a start,” Keschl said. “I think now that departments have implemented a zero-based approach, we’ll start to see more results from that as well.”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, another task force member, said she was pleased that most of the recommendations were unanimous.

The $25 million in proposed cuts may be a short-term victory.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew last week told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that her department’s expected shortfall has increased from $71 million to $121 million.

“Everyone thought this would be the hard job,” Hill said of the task force’s work. “It wasn’t easy but we got there. Based on what we’re hearing from DHHS, though, this pales in comparison.”

The DHHS budget shortfall likely will be addressed through a supplemental budget proposal by Gov. Paul LePage, which could be released in the next two weeks, according to his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

The budget task force approved a number of proposed cuts but rejected many others.

One of the recommendations that ultimately was rejected was a proposal by the Department of Corrections to close the Down East Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor.

Lawmakers in Washington County had fought hard to keep that facility open.

“There is no doubt the Legislature faces difficult decisions as we work to bring the budget into balance in light of an expanding shortfall within the Department of Health and Human Services,” members of the county delegation, led by Senate President Kevin Raye, said in a joint statement. “But the closure of a facility with the most reliable and experienced staff in the entire correctional system does not make sense.

Recommendations that were made and rejected during the streamline task force process could be revisited through the supplemental budget. That means items like the state’s Head Start program and its $2.5 million in funds could be eliminated.

Democrats remain concerned that further cuts to programs for needy Mainers are a bad idea.

“I think we have to not only deal with the money we don’t have but talk about, ‘how do we make up for it?’” Hill said. “We can’t decimate that department.”

Keschl agreed that lawmakers have a tougher job ahead.

“I think what we’ve learned from all this is that it’s hard to do away services that have always been there, but state government can no longer fulfill all promises that have been made over the last 40 years,” he said. “We just can’t afford it anymore.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/28/politics/state-budget-task-force-agrees-on-25m-in-cuts/ printed on August 1, 2014